History & Culture

Pictures as words

A word like ‘cat’ in written English has no resemblance to the real thing, so association has to be taught, often with supporting imagery. (Cat image courtesy of WP ClipArt.com)

English is written in a modular symbolic form: the word ‘cat’ has no inherent relationship to what we know as a cat, it acquires its meaning only through learned association. The letters within words denote sounds and sometimes meanings as well, but they are not constant. Contrary to what we were taught as infants, ‘A’ is not for apple, it has many other uses and when placed within the spelling of apple, the letter itself is meaningless other than as an indicator of sound; but even that can change, as it does in ‘day’.

On a website about nature, such observations may seem like irrelevant pedantry, but there is a view that the need to record and write about our natural world in this confusing, abstract form has changed the very way we regard nature itself, and limited the manner in which we discuss it. Some leading international ecologists contend that, in the same way that when we give something a number instead of a name, it loses its character and identity, the abstract symbols used in written languages of modern western culture serve to anonymise nature and distance us from it in our discussions of the natural world.

Some Mandarin word symbols are still recognisable as pictographs of real world natural objects today. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

In comparison, the written languages of Ancient Egypt, Japan and China use pictographs, little representative images, to describe and discuss the natural world. In Mandarin the sun was, in ancient times, depicted with a recognisable image of the sun; today the word for a tree is still a recognisable pictograph of a tree. Could it be that the use of this type of written language, as opposed to ours, inherently fosters closer cultural connections with nature? Some people believe so.

Various modern English letters also began their history in ancient times as depictions of real entities, but they have evolved over the ages to the extent that most are now barely recognisable as illustrations of their original subjects, and they no longer have any meaning associated with that origin. The letter A began life as an image of an Ox’s head (you can get the idea if you turn the A on its side), but it does not mean ‘Ox’s head’ in any words in which it is placed. B was a house (unrecognisable in its modern shape); D was a door; L (upside down) was a walking stick; M was water, showing the waves on the sea; N was a snake; O was an open eye; P was a mouth (ironically still used in jokey modern text messages to show a mouth with a tongue out); Q was an image of a monkey (and yes that sweeping lower stroke was its tail); X was a fish (representing the part where the fish’s tail joins the body). An X was used as the secret fish symbol of early Christians.

It’s a strange thing, but even discussing these ancient origins of our English letters and Chinese pictographic words does seem to draw us a little closer to the natural world of our past, and it invites conjecture on how a pictographic modern western language, if we had one, or even some other linguistic form, might have influenced discussions and attitudes to nature and ecology today.

This article was inspired by the visionary and thought provoking book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram.

A walk around the model farm

On Saturday, 20 January 2018, members of the Barham Downs Action Group led a walk on public rights of way around Highland Court Farm near Bridge. The initiative was intended for local people with an interest in learning more about the farm and preserving the farmland from a proposed new development. Despite inclement weather, over twenty people, some with dogs, attended the walk.

Jill Thomas, of Bekesbourne, presented some interesting factual and historical information about the farm and the downs at various locations around the landscape.

On behalf of all local people who wish to see our AONB preserved, we thank the organisers and all those who attended.

This was not a BridgeNature.org initiative and we have no further information on the walk or the action group. Barham Downs Action Group have their own Facebook page.

A vase of flowers

A flower display on the bar at the Red Lion in Bridge, made by Sandra using flowers from the garden. July 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

For centuries people have enjoyed the sight of flowers, in the wild, in gardens and in their homes. However, in the past, bringing flowers into the house often had a particular purpose or meaning beyond just providing something pretty to look at. They would be strategically positioned above doors and windows to ward off evil spirits, or carefully placed in certain rooms to bring good luck and good health to the occupants. This tradition extended right through history into the 20th century with visitors taking flowers to those who were ill in hospital. Conversely, old folklore also provides an extensive list of flowers which should never be brought into the home for fear of inviting illness or bad luck upon the residents: this includes any type of blossom (particularly hawthorn), lilies, bluebells, dandelions and many other wild flowers.

These days we are less superstitious, some might say less spiritual, and few people actually bring flowers into the house to ward off evil spirits or to prevent diseases, yet millions of us display flowers in vases in locations around the home and the workplace because of the cheer they bring. We say “flowers brighten up the room” but what we really mean is “flowers brighten up our mood”. Scientific behavioural studies have shown that this, in itself, is no mere superstition: living and working in the presence of an attractive display of flowers really does trigger feelings of happiness and emotional well-being in everyone, men and women of all age groups. Furthermore studies show that for some reason, which is not clearly understood, a display of flowers in a room makes us more friendly, more willing to share, and has a much more powerful positive effect on our social behaviour than is generally assumed. One simple theory which might explain these responses, is that the colours, shapes and scents of flowers remind us biologically and emotionally of the idyllic conditions of spring and early summer when all animal and plant life bursts forth anew.

So, here in mid-winter, while we endure the coldest, most depressing months of the year, an attractive display of flowers in the home or office may provide a natural remedy to the winter blues; but of course the blooms in any such display are likely to be imported.

Wild flowers should be left in the wild, please do not pick them for your home!

A few words from Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Albert Schweitzer working at his desk. Image courtesy of WpClipart.com, free to use royalty free images.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was a philosopher, theologian, physician, cat lover and musician. In his time he was an outspoken and controversial figure who campaigned against colonialism, the falsehoods of historical Christianity, the arms race, nuclear weapons and cruelty to animals. In a tribute for his birthday, January 14th, we include some of his thoughts on animals below:

[After almost being pressured by other boys to sling rocks at birds.] From that day onward I took courage to emancipate myself from the fear of men, and whenever my inner convictions were at stake I let other people’s opinions weigh less with me than they had done previously. I tried also to unlearn my former dread of being laughed at by my school-fellows. This early influence upon me of the commandment not to kill or to torture other creatures is the great experience of my youth. By the side of that all others are insignificant.

True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.

A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help, and when he goes out of his way to avoid injuring anything living. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves sympathy as valuable in itself, not how far it is capable of feeling. To him life as such is sacred…

The time will come when public opinion will no longer tolerate amusements based on the mistreatment and killing of animals. The time will come, but when? When will we reach the point that hunting, the pleasure of killing animals for sport, will be regarded as a mental aberration?

We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace. We need a boundless ethic which will include animals also.”

Dr Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. Yet is interesting to note that even today, a British Prime Minister, the daughter of a clergyman, publicly supports the illegal ‘sport’ of fox-hunting. However, she has abandoned plans to hold a free vote on restoring its legality because British public opinion is so against this vile hobby that any such vote could only bring further discredit to herself and her circle of cruel Tory pals. Nevertheless, the sport of shooting animals, just for the fun of it, continues perfectly legally here and in many other advanced nations.

Riding the wind on sacred wings

A Common Kestrel (male) on a pylon near Sheep Dip Lane, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

The Common Kestrel is a member of the falcon family, but one particular talent which distinguishes it from other members is the ability to hover, which it tends to practice facing into the wind; hence its more ancient and poetic name, the Windhover, used in Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ famous sonnet of that name: though quite how he manages to liken the hovering Kestrel to a man riding a horse while, at the same time, being a metaphor for Christ, is something which perhaps only a 19th century Jesuit priest-poet can answer!

The view of the Common Kestrel which may have inspired the Jesuit Manley-Hopkins. This one was hovering over The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2018

At least one pair of Kestrels were resident in the Bridge area throughout 2017 and in these winter months one can often be observed hovering in the sky above the meadows or The Butts. Others can be spotted regularly hunting above the A2 between Bridge and Dover. These are not unusual sightings: the Common Kestrel is the most populous and widely spread of British falcons, living generally in open countryside and even cities like London, in fact anywhere it can perch up high and survey the open land around for ground prey. For obvious reasons, it avoids bleak, treeless moorland and densely wooded forestry.

The birds are well known for their keen eyesight, which allows them to scan the ground from a height, but less well known is the fact that their eyes are sensitive to ultra-violet light, a feature which means that they can clearly see the UV reflecting urine droppings which voles and mice continually excrete. Hence, even from up on high, the birds can follow an active visual trail to the prey itself.

A Common Kestrel (female) with prey, Bridge Meadows, Boxing Day 2017. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2018

Although Kestrels were once persecuted by farmers, it is now widely realised that they prey on the vermin which many arable and poultry farmers want rid of: rats and mice, so these days Kestrels are generally left in peace, at least where farmers are tuned in to a modern understanding of working with Nature rather than against it.

Yuletide berries on the Butcher’s Broom

The berry of the Butcher’s Broom. It is often ovaloid, as pictured. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Holly is not the only plant which bears bright scarlet berries in the frosty weeks leading up to Yuletide. Another prickly character, the Butcher’s Broom, can still be seen sporting these bright fruits in Whitehill Wood this week.

Butcher’s Broom is a strange name, for a strange plant: it is a small, low growing shrub which is related to the lily, yet it offers no apparent resemblance to that flower whatsoever. Between January and April it bears tiny greenish white flowers which, rather than growing on stalks, appear to grow in the centre of the leaves. It is an evergreen, which usually means its leaves stay green through the winter, but what seem to be leaves on the Butcher’s Broom are not really leaves at all, they are flattened stems called clododes, hence the reason the flowers grow where they do. These cladodes are shaped like spear points and are extremely prickly. The real leaves are less obvious.

The flowers of the Butcher’s Broom. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

In late autumn through to Christmas, Butcher’s Broom exhibits its beautiful scarlet berries, which are bigger than those of the holly, often ovaloid, but sufficiently similar for it to be sometimes called Knee Holly. Other common names for the plant include Pettigree and Sweet Broom. Although widespread across southern Britain, Butcher’s Broom is not a particularly common sight, but it is an Ancient Woodland Indicator, meaning that if you see it in the wild you may be standing in some very long established woods; as is the case in Whitehill Wood. It generally favours shady areas beneath canopy trees.

In olden times the prickliness of the plant made it an ideal guard to prevent meat hanging in butchers’ shops from being eaten by mice, and also for making scratchy, abrasive brooms. John Parkinson, a botanist and apothecary to James I in the early 1600s wrote about butchers using it thus, “…for that a bundle of the stalkes tied together serveth them to cleanse their stalls and from thence have we our English name of Butcher’s broom.” The plant has also been cultivated across Europe for its numerous medical and cosmetic properties since the days of Ancient Greece.

We wish all readers of BridgeNature.org a happy festive season.

No picture necessary

‘No hedgehog’ montage by BridgeNature.org 2017. Hedgehog image copyright © FreeStencilGallery.com.

One evening, back in the sultry days of summer, a neighbour phoned to tell me that she had rescued a young hedgehog.

Having apparently tumbled from the verge on Mill Lane it was lying curled up in a ball in the middle of the road when she found it. She picked it up and gave it a few moments to recover, but since it appeared to be somewhat unresponsive, she called a hedgehog rescue centre for advice on what to do. My neighbour was advised to take the hedgehog to a place of safety, provide a dish of cat food and a tray of water and monitor it for 24 hours. If it seemed healthy the next day it should be released back into the wild in close proximity to where it was found.

The following day my neighbour called me again, asking if I wanted to come and see the hedgehog. Perhaps I might like to take a picture, she suggested. In the early evening I went to look, and there, enclosed for its own safety in a small cage, was a young hedgehog, apparently healthy and fully recovered from its ordeal. For a moment or two I contemplated taking a picture, but the hedgehog was shy of me, and wary of the daylight. It hid away in an upturned pot which had been thoughtfully provided to give it shade and some sense of cover. It would not have appreciated being disturbed and distressed for the sake of a photograph.

I thought for a moment. The creature had been rescued from the road, protected and fed. It was about to be released again into the wild. Was a picture really necessary? What would it be for?

Asking the question “What is a photograph of an animal for?” leads us into another important question, “Is the picture for the animal’s benefit, or for our own amusement?”. The act of protecting wildlife is conservation, and my neighbour had accomplished that task admirably. A good picture may inspire us to take an interest in wildlife, but we must always remember photography in itself is not conservation.

And so, later that evening, the hedgehog slipped unnoticed back into the countryside, healthy and anonymous… no picture necessary.

Of signs and scenery

Under orders. A plethora of ugly, bossy signage can create an oppressive atmosphere. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

NO ENTRY, KEEP OFF THE GRASS, TURN LEFT, TURN RIGHT. Whatever a sign says, very often there is another message written large within the words, and it says, “Pay attention to me: I want to tell you what to do”. We see signs all over the place, everywhere we go, in the city and in our rural fields. Even advertising signs for things as unimportant as pop songs and fashion wear pass daily through our countryside on buses and delivery trucks, telling us what we need to buy and imposing themselves upon our scenic vistas. People living in the metropolis may have grown used to signs and accept them as part of daily life in the busy urban hive; but do we really need so many cluttering the countryside and our small villages? What are they all for?

Theme park countryside. The placement of this supposedly educational sign spoils a rural beauty spot and the view of the Little Stour at Littlebourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

At their best, signs are necessary and useful: they keep us safe, prevent us from getting lost and guide us on our way. One obvious example might seem to be street name signs, but in fact Japan has managed without them for centuries, so even these aren’t quite as essential as we might assume.

LIVESTOCK LOOSE, PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE, KEEP DOGS ON A LEAD and other such signs in the rural landscape make it clear that we are on a farm: the farmer may rightly deem the signs necessary to protect livestock, but ironically they only become so because of the careless stupidity of an ignorant public who have become so used to signage that they don’t know how to behave on working land unless they see a sign telling them what to do.

With the exception of these types of notices, our working countryside is generally clear of signage litter; our farmers have better things to do than plant signs. But the same cannot be said for our rural roadside verges, parks, recreation grounds and public places, all of which are littered with self-important signage. Many of these signs are poorly considered and simply express a need to be noticed in an individualist orientated, yet alienating modern commercial culture which has no regard for the demure.

We have been informed that CCC have requested the removal of this unauthorised advertising sign in a field on the approach to Bishopsbourne village. It has now been covered. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

British panning law requires that signs above a certain size need planning permission before they can be placed out in the countryside: placement without authorisation is a criminal offence, and thankfully Britain’s farmland is spared the rows of huge roadside advertising hoardings that litter the roadside in various countries on the continent. This is particularly important here in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and our designated Conservation Areas, where the commercial interests of private enterprise should not be allowed to damage rural amenity assets which are of immense value to local communities and the nation as a whole.

The face of a tree

Beech tree, Mill Lane, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

If you look closely at this picture of the big old beech tree on Mill Lane, you may be able to see a face. Can you see it? No, I’m not talking about the bit of the trunk that coincidentally resembles the profile of a human face: I mean look really closely, to see and understand the true face and features of a tree.

We live in the countryside, not in a pantomime or a children’s story: the characters which inhabit our landscape are every bit as real as they are in the stories we read as children, in fact more so, but they do not live and work and think in the anthropomorphic (human-like) ways those children’s authors would have us believe.

The fox is not ‘bad’ because he kills chickens, and he is not somehow cruel or wasteful because he will kill all that he sees running round him, in excess of what he can carry away to eat: he simply reacts impulsively to certain movement, much as we do when we swat at a wasp buzzing around us.

Similarly, the cat is not ‘lazy’ because it spends half the day sleeping, it is conserving energy for when it is needed; the magpie is not ‘evil’ because it steals young birds from nests; the badger is not ‘vicious’ because it defends itself from dogs; and sheep are not ‘stupid’ because they don’t understand our motives and stick together in a herd for safety. All of these animals are just being animals, living according to their own make-up and needs.

Trees on the other hand, are seldom judged on their motives, apart from Leylandii, which are generally demonised for their rapid growth (although they are just being trees and it is we who have bred them and planted them in the wrong place). Trees are often loved for their presence, but rarely appreciated for any personality beyond a visual appearance. Yet modern science has discovered that trees really do send messages to each other; they breath, they drink, they reproduce; they play home to millions of other living creatures; they sing and dance in the wind; they travel great distances by cloning themselves with seeds. Yet no one tree is ever exactly the same as another: who could deny that they have personality?

So, when we look at a tree, or any living thing, we must appreciate it for what it is and the character that it has, not some personality imposed on it by folklore, Disney cartoons or children’s stories. If we look really closely at a tree we will see a face, the face of a tree, a formation of features which present the visage of a wonderful living thing, not the eyes, nose and mouth of some imagined human-like persona, which the tree is not.

The treasure in the fields

A detectorist in a field in Bridge this week. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Seeing a detectorist with a metal detector searching for treasure in the middle of a huge field, one might be reminded of Easop’s fable ‘The farmer and his sons’.

Knowing he was about to die, an old farmer summoned his two sons to his bedside and pleaded with them not to sell the farm when he died. He explained that the land had been in their family for generations, there was a great treasure in the fields, and it was waiting to be discovered if only they did the work to look for it.

After the farmer died his sons gathered their tools and began digging all over the land in a quest to find the buried treasure. They did not find it, but their digging had been so thorough that they had prepared the fields for the next growing season. Furthermore, they realised that working on the land had given them a new purpose in life: so they planted seed; and when their crops ripened the following summer, the farm duly offered up its bounty, just as the old man had promised.

This tale was being told, no doubt by elderly farmers to their children, in Ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but it is astonishing how the concerns and moral values within are still so relevant and so extraordinarily pertinent even to this day.