When the Rooted argue – The National Trust, Rewilding and the Lake District Farmers

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A view from Wray Castle near Windermere

It is an argument that has been simmering for some time. And it is between people and organisations that all have a ‘Rooted’ spirituality in that they care about nature; They care about a place, in this case the Lake District; and they all think broadly and inclusively about people and communities.

The particular issue is focussed around Thorneythwaite Farm in Borrowdale, where the National Trust has taken the unusual step of purchasing most of the land belonging to the farm, but have not bought the farm buildings. Local sheep farmers foresee the end of sheep farming in this place as the buildings become holiday cottages, while the National Trust appear to be considering new ways of managing this piece of land in the interests of nature and the public.

The back story to this moment is profound, extending through centuries of farming tradition, supported by patrons like Beatrix Potter, who grew to love this area, moved there, learnt to farm sheep and bequeathed almost 4000 acres to the National Trust as a ways of preserving that way of life. It also features the local clergyman Hardwicke Rawnsley, who helped to set up the National Trust and campaigned all his life for the conservation of the Lake District. And it features countless sheep farmers, ably represented most recently by the writing of James Rebanks in The Shepherd’s Life. This book takes the reader deep into the soul of the sheep farming tradition and the rootedness of the farmers who see themselves as absolutely belonging to the landscape in which they live and work. You could say they are ‘hefted’ to their place in the world in the same way as their sheep are hefted to the fell on which they graze and do not wander. Yet James Rebanks writing is not a simple romantic attachment to the ways of the past. He sees the value of tourism to the area and realises that change of some sort is in the air.

herdwickshsmThe other side of the back story is the growing recognition that upland fells are not well treated by sheep. Sheep create a monoculture of grass. We may like this, because we of the fantastic, wide open views that we have become accustomed to, but in the absence of sheep a much more diverse ecology would develop. Much of the area would return to forest, with a proliferation of diverse species, which would be enormously attractive and beneficial both to humans and other creatures. Such a process of rewilding might also have serious benefits in terms of protecting valleys against the flash flooding that has become more and more frequent in this area.

So what is the resolution here? As I see it we need to learn to feel the different sides of argument. They are both important. Ultimately the questions may reduce to an assessment of values and priorities. Is it adequate to just preserve a way of life because it has been going on for centuries and is embedded in communities? Or is it appropriate to test the wisdom of a tradition against new insights that may be important for our future well-being? There can be little doubt that we need to learn to live in a better harmony with the natural world, but we are still learning exactly what that looks like. My sense is that there has to be a profound engagement with these questions. Simple preservation of ancient traditions may be inadequate. We need to test both the value and practicality of alternatives.

The Divide

On Thursday last week Bristol Pound hosted a showing  of the film ‘The Divide,  based on the widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level- why equality is better for everyone’ – by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

In what aims to be a completely fact-based study, The Spirit Level authors purport to demonstrate that nations, states and regions, which are most divided between rich and poor also score lowest on a whole set of measures of well-being. Some of the particular statistical analyses they present have attracted some criticism, but the overall argument appears to have been vindicated over time. Kate Pickett has summarised their findings like this:

it became clear that, as well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.[i]

Their thesis is that living in a highly polarised society does something to people, making them less satisfied with their own lives and tends, especially among poorer people, to feelings of inadequacy or alienation. Their appeal is for a much stronger collective culture with the proliferation of co-operatives and other similar initiatives. Free marketeers hate such talk, seeing it all as an inhibition of ‘freedom’ – meaning the freedom of the individual to do as they like. Others might comment that such individualistic freedom should, indeed must, be checked in any just society and it is pandering to such ‘freedom’ that has allowed these polarities between rich and poor to arise with their ensuing dis- ease in society.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said this in May 2014 to a conference in London:

Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself…

Here he points to social capital, the value embedded in the very structure of relationships in a society, as something that must be protected for the good of all.

The big question then arises as to How this can be achieved? Making change is not so easy in a society built around the free market and working to its rules. This is what I said in my forthcoming book Rise up with Wings like Eagles.

I believe that the heart of a new approach to economics can be found in one simple idea. That is that wherever we are in the world, we should attempt to localize those parts of the economy that can be localized. This sort of shift has the potential to engender really positive social and political effects and provide a new resilience, especially to poorer economies. It is also an absolute necessity in terms of action on climate change.[ii]

This is the deep reason why we set out to deliver a city-wide currency in the Bristol region and why a team of us are now working to create a food co-operative, called Real Economy, based on sourcing from local producers. Creating our own systems locally, allows us to embed a set of social and environmental aims into our projects and then test and monitor their ‘success’ against progress on these aims. This creates a quite different feel to the culture, gathering participants who share the intrinsic values of the community and so building community life across the city. In terms of scale, of course, these projects are tiny in comparison to the global problems they set out to address, but they may have the potential to give people a taste of something different and so prove ‘There is an alternative’. Then people can respond.

[i] Kate Pickett (2014) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/09/society-unequal-the-spirit-level

 

[ii] From Chapter Six ‘Short-Sighted Economics’ in Rise up with Wings like Eagles – discover inner strength and wisdom to transform our relationship with the earth by Chris Sunderland (to be published by Earth Books in December 2016)

 

Rooted People 2 The people of Sims Hill Shared Harvest

 

vegIt was five years or so ago now that a community-supported agriculture project called Sim Hill Shared Harvest was launched based on some prime agricultural land within two miles of Bristol city centre. The community of people that set out on this project had worked together for more than two years to plan the venture, which was to be a ‘full on’ community working on a shared risk/shared harvest basis and growing food according to Permaculture principles. It has been a greatly enriching experience for me to have been part of this project from the start. There is much that could be said about the project, as a project, but here I would like to focus on the values that drew us together and which remain the essential energy that drive our commitment to make it work.

We are currently a community of around 90 households, many living very close the city centre. As in any community, we are a variety of people with diverse views and anything I say generally about the community needs to be qualified with the fact that it probably won’t apply to everybody.  Nevertheless, I think many of our members would share some values. For example, we may live in a city, but we care about the natural world and recognise that food needs to be grown in a way that works with natural systems. We see the strength in people working together to grow their food and taking some of the strain from the paid growers, who otherwise have to struggle through bad seasons, with tiny margins, going into debt and never emerging. And we also believe that healthy communities are diverse communities. As people of this City of Sanctuary, the Sims Hill community has a deliberately welcoming ethos. Many of us naturally empathise with asylum seekers and refugees and easily embrace initiatives to do with including alienated, or economically marginalised people.

The converse of this is also true. Many members recognise that there are deep and systemic problems in our current society of which climate change is a tragic symptom. Their membership of Sims Hill is an expression of a wider commitment to find new ways of living, more in harmony with the natural world and with one another. They believe that there is a better way of life to be found and want to demonstrate that.

I decided not to name particular people in this short piece, because Sims Hill is very much a community. There is no ‘one’ leader around whom it all ‘really’ revolves. There are many who contribute to its life. To my mind, the people of this community demonstrate most clearly, what I have termed, a ‘rooted’ spirituality while living in a city. They are people who long to connect with nature and to live in a better harmony with the natural world. They are connected to a place, in that they care about this patch of agricultural land from which their food comes. And they are looking to form a rich and diverse human community, deliberately including people who are in some way alienated from the dominant society.

Nature, place and people – this is what it means to be rooted.

 

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