Disaster in Surrey

This letter from Surrey in today’s Guardian reinforces the messages about loss of insects found across Europe, eg see insectageddon. The effect is disastrous right up the food chain. Something catastrophic has changed in our farming methods (most probably), and needs to be reversed. Is it neonicontinoids?

When I moved here 15 years ago, greenfly, dragonflies, hoverflies, bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies among others were common in the garden. There were swallows and martins in the sky in the summer. We had a colony of swifts in the church tower. The swifts, swallows and martins seem to have disappeared. I saw one swallow over the Thames but very few mayflies. I felt that an additional observation might be of interest. In doing a bit of housework, I realised that I’d not had to sweep for cobwebs for a long time and I found none, even after a search. The magpies, crows and jackdaws seem to be thriving, as do the foxes, so there seems to have been a specific change to spiders and insects and the birds that depend on them for food. I’ve no idea if neonicotinoids are responsible (Letters, 16 November) but something seems to be happening.
David Marjot
Weybridge, Surrey

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Wigeon

wigeon pair
Wigeon pair

The wigeon is another dabbling duck. According to the RSPB, some breed in the UK, but there are many more winter visitors. We were lucky to see a fair number at WWT Martin Mere at end October, the attraction probably being that winter feeding had begun.

A web browse shows wigeon to be more colourful in summer, but these are still attractive birds.

wigeon 2

Misuse of Power

These sex and money scandals – it’s all about the misuse of power, with money as its ally and enabler.

The power and will of the undeveloped ego does not move beyond selfish impulses, empathise with others or reflect upon the consequences or morality of his/her actions. Some such persons become capable of  sexual aggression or rape; others take their own wealth to be of supreme importance at the expense of others, some consolidating their position by dictatorial politics or gangster rackets.

Money is the enabler that pays the lawyers and accountants to ensure that their actions are legitimised or not penalised. How often have you heard the words ‘I haven’t done anything illegal’?

It is interesting that the worst corporate offenders in terms of avoiding their obligations to the wider society seem to be the young (and still rapidly growing) IT companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. – entities still essentially in their adolescence, when a sense of balance and fairness is often not yet achieved by the ego.

The developed ego strives to continue to grow and move beyond these primitive influences, leading ultimately to ego transcendence and spiritual being. For these people, power and money give responsibility for their wise use, in the situation in which one finds oneself. Exploitation of others and personal aggrandisement are no longer part of the game.

Our challenge today is to raise the level of everyone’s game (ego). The bringing to light, to public awareness, of what was previously hidden, is an encouraging part of that process of change. I salute all involved in this cleaning of the inner stables, particularly those with the amazing courage to speak out the unspeakable things done to them and those journalists whose efforts shine that light.

 

Teal dabblers

This common teal was taking advantage of the start of the winter feeding regime at WWT Martin Mere at the end of October.

teal

Teal are the smallest of the dabbling ducks, which may dabble on the water or ‘upend’ to get at things below (as opposed to divers). According to WWT Slimbridge, “Dabbling ducks legs are further central than other types of duck enabling them to walk well on land and graze. Dabbling ducks tend to take flight when spooked or on the move and are able to take flight straight from the water, unlike divers which have to run across the water to gain momentum.”

Some teal are resident in the UK, and many over-winter here, which this one might be is not clear to me.

This bird is of course the origin of the name of the colour teal.

Another Place

One of my favourite places to visit in the North West of England is Crosby Beach, home to Antony Gormley’s Another Place. The beach is studded with statues of a man looking out to sea, and the effect is remarkable.

The statues, beach, sea, skyline and offshore wind farms provide almost infinite possibilities for photography (not forgetting the starlings).

another placeI rather like this one, at telephoto zoom, showing pooled water on the beach, with the windfarm in the background. In between is the deepwater channel where you occasionally see vessels making their way to/from Liverpool. The shadow on the horizon is the hills of North Wales.

The large sandy beach makes a good place to walk, but is not usually appropriate for traditional ‘bucket and spade’ activities as there is usually a fair wind.

And what’s this about wind farms being an eyesore? In the right place they can even add to the natural beauty of a location, which is not really something you can say about a nuclear power station. Yes I’m biased.

 

Murmuration

One of the UK’s spectacular natural sights is the autumn murmuration (gathering) of huge flocks of starlings preparing to roost as night begins to fall.

murmuration 1We received a treat at the end of October when we encountered one at WWT Martin Mere, while we were actually waiting to see the pink footed geese coming in at dusk. This was at a relatively early stage. More and more groups of starlings joined in, and the gathering went on for more than half an hour.Read More »

Greenfinch

This pair of greenfinches were part of what seemed a plentiful population during our visit to RSPB Fairburn Ings, attracted by the splendid feeders there.

But this is not the case everywhere. The British Trust for Ornithology reports that “Until 2005, greenfinches were one of the most common birds at our garden feeders. However, hit by the disease finch trichomonosis, they are now a rarity in many gardens and their population has declined by about 35 per cent.” BTO makes the point that trichomonosis “can be spread between birds at garden feeding stations so it is very important to regularly clean feeders and bird tables”. Self and others please note.

Goldfinch

This goldfinch was at RSPB Fairburn Ings, perfectly posed to show that red face and yellow wing feathers.

The pointed beak makes this bird expert at extracting seeds from thistles, and feeders with niger seeds – which is where we often see them in the back garden. They were once called thistle finches. It took me a long time to recognise goldfinches, because I was expecting something a bit more… gold!

Wikipedia reports that “In Britain during the 19th century many thousands of goldfinches were trapped each year to be sold as cage-birds.” Thank heaven this practice of caging wild birds is no longer acceptable in the UK; some other parts of the world have yet to catch up.

Apparently, many goldfinches are resident in the UK but some migrate further south in winter, as far as Spain – just like many retired Brits.

 

 

Chaffinch

Chaffinches are very common in the UK, a strikingly pretty bird – even the female, which is less brightly coloured than the male. This October example is probably a male after its autumn moult.

This one was near a bird feeder at  RSPB Fairburn Ings, but not actually on the feeder, just as it says in the RSPB book.

Interestingly, the name of this finch comes from its seed eating habit and the ‘chaff’ that is generated thereby.

Tree Sparrow

Tree sparrows are much scarcer in the UK than the more common house sparrow. The RSPB differentiates them by the “chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek spot”.

The RSPB reports that “the main populations are now found across the Midlands, southern and eastern England”, which explains why we never see these birds in Cheshire, and we did see this example at RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire.

Apparently, populations have very much declined in recent decades, no doubt significantly attributed to the reduction in the number of insects. Wake up, people, modern farming is slowly killing the natural world.

Dunnock

The dunnock, a rather undistinguished little brown job, is quite common in the UK, so little remarked upon.

In my youth it was called a hedge sparrow, and this term is still sometimes used.

This one conveniently posed on a post at the excellent RSPB Fairburn Ings, near Leeds. The variegated markings mean it is well worth a second look, and actually quite attractive.

For inexperienced spotters like me, they are easily confused with house sparrows and corn buntings.

Inequality

The recent issue of London Review of Books has an interesting review by James C. Scott of the book The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century, by Walter Scheidel. It seems that the increasing inequality exhibited in the recent neoliberal era is not a historical anomaly, but a characteristic of periods of reasonable stability in all societies over thousands of years. Those that have get more and more, at the expense of those that have not. The great levellers are wars, plagues, and their consequences such as revolutions or massive disruptions such as the Great Leap Forward.

It seems that Scheidel’s book is a bit of a counsel of despair, in that he suggests that most of the social advances made in social justice, democracy, education, trade unions, welfare state… have little effect on this underlying trend.

As a counter-example, Scott does point to the example of Scandinavia, which is particularly stable because “They provide even the poorest with the resources necessary to maintain their dignity.” This is surely the measure of a decent society, and sadly one that many free marketeers appear not to believe in.

Of course, it is arguable that if the level of all is rising, then it does not matter, as the situation of even the lowest is improving. The period of austerity since 2008 seems to have reduced any leverage this argument may have had.

I would suggest that it is not beyond the wit of man to come up with more equitable systems that allows all human beings to maintain their dignity. Good places to start include taxation of scarce or undesirable resources – land, wealth, carbon, financial transactions,… progressive taxation, removing tax havens, money reform so that new money benefits society directly, basic income with a reduced minimum wage, provision of adequate ‘social housing’… There is no shortage of good directions, it just needs the will, particularly of the better off.

Featured image shows UK wealth distribution by decile (IFS), but of course hides the extremes and unknowns at the right hand end. And many countries have much worse profiles.

Insectageddon

With great eloquence, George Monbiot pursues the theme of loss of insects covered in my previous post) and puts it in context with other ongoing global disasters, such as depletion/ acidification of soil/ seas, and climate change. His piece in The Guardian is well worth reading.

Our natural world is under unprecedented attack by the huge number of people seeking a lifestyle it cannot support – unprecedented except for great natural disasters such as large meteorite hits. The situation cries out for action at all levels – personal, business, corporation, local, regional, national, super-regional, continental, global. Yet we seem to be stymied by current vested interests and our own boiling-frog-like inertia.

Brexit is in a sense totally irrelevant to these problems, although we could use it to drive rapid change in the right direction in the UK. But don’t hold your breath if you keep voting the Tories into power – their radical wing appear to have nothing to offer this situation.

Featured bee image by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA – Apis mellifera, via Wikimedia Commons

Disappearing Insects

In The Guardian Michael McCarthy reports that insect populations are disappearing at a catastrophic rate – 75% of all insects lost since 1989, which of course begins to explain the similar collapse of many species of birds. My own personal experience of the prevalence of insects in gardens, fields and on car windscreens correlates with this.

Our ecosystem is undergoing rapid and massive collapse, by historical standards. It is pretty clear that a major contributory cause is modern industrial farming and related so-called pesticides.

And yet the majority, look, shrug their shoulders and carry on as before. Politicians take the lead from either the status quo, industrial lobbying or their own dogmas about reversing changes done by ‘the other side’. Environmental leaders are tolerated but not really listened to.

Where is the massive programme needed to reverse this catastrophe before it is too late? Such as a massive increase in organic farming, reduction in intensity of cultivation, rewilding of low-productivity farming land, extension of nature reserves, end to unnecessary mowing of verges and fields, massive reduction in use of pesticides, and on and on?

We seem like frogs in a pan of water that is being slowly heated up. From minute to minute there seems little different and nothing to be really concerned about, so we don’t try to jump out. Of course, eventually the frog dies as the water boils.

Featured image of Ovipositor and sheath of Aulacid wasp
from Insects Unlocked [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Inner and Outer

Simple observation tells us that there are two aspects to life: inner experience and the outer world, subjective and objective. Our senses provide the link between the two, the inner perceives the outer.

We also recognise the life in other humans, beings in the animal world and, more subtly, insects, fish, the vegetable world, and so on. They clearly also have a ‘vital, living’ inner as well as a perceived form. Even places and spaces can have a clearly perceived atmosphere.

As far as I can see, Descartes came along and muddied the water, saying ‘I think therefore I am,’  when the reality is ‘I perceive therefore I am’ – thinking is something layered on top of this. This was part of the process that led to the creation of modern science and technology, and their focus on the objective, rather ignoring that inner subjective element. Quantity became all-important, to the exclusion of quality. Vitalism, that recognised the living spark within, was in the process rejected.

It seems at times that we live in a sort of half-world, glorifying science, technology, money, material goods, laws – but somehow disconnected from the qualities, beauty, truth and goodness that make it all worthwhile, indeed that make human life work sustainably – as is beginning to become apparent.

Featured image of Tao symbol courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To Have or To Be

to have or to beI read Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be (1978) many years ago, and remember being impressed by the ideas put forward. So I recently sought out the copy with yellowing pages from the shelf of books that have survived regular culls over the years. I discovered that Fromm’s ideas are just as relevant today, and the problems he identified have arguably got worse.

His basic idea is simple. Having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the relative strengths of which are key determinants of character. Modern capitalist society emphasises having things, property,  money, goods and so on – so these are major determinants of character, and the society is essentially competitive. Other more co-operative societies have been more concerned with being in the world and how we relate to it.Read More »

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Swallow

swallow dranseThis swallow was just asking to be photographed, perched on a cable at Thonon-les-Bains, France. The photo was taken about a month ago. By now this bird is probably well on its way down to South Africa for the winter, part of the great seasonal bird migrations.

We’ll miss that ceaseless flying to and fro over open ground or water catching insects, and look forward to next year’s return.