‘The Magic of Wetlands: From the Carboniferous to Carbon Sinks’ published on Gods & Radicals

My article ‘The Magic of Wetlands: From the Carboniferous to Carbon Sinks’ has been published on Gods & Radicals HERE.

‘A good part of a geological age has been dug from the depths of the earth. Is it any wonder she speaks to us of the Carboniferous in broken dreams and calls our attention to our existing wetlands?’

April Dogs

This is not an April Fool but an April Dog! As many people cannot visit local nature reserves due to the COVID-19 restrictions I am offering a free digital copy of my latest poetry pamphlet ‘April Dogs’. This collection honours the birds and other creatures of the wetlands and coasts of Lancashire and beyond and touches on the themes of the climate crisis, science, and war. Most of the poems were written in response to encounters with wetland birds on my stretch of the river Ribble and visiting reserves such as LWT’s Brockholes, WWT Martin Mere, and RSPB Leighton Moss.

You can download your PDF of April Dogs by clicking HERE.

The Hunting of Horace the Elk

He’s the centrepiece of the Discover Preston Gallery at the Harris Museum. He’s become iconic. His skeleton stands at around 2m at shoulder height and he might have weighed up to 700kg. By his palmate antlers he can be identified immediately as alces alces – a Eurasian Elk. His bones have been radio-carbon dated to 11,500BC, making him one of our oldest ancestral animals at 13,500 years old.

The remains of Horace the Elk were discovered in the 1970s when John Devine of 365 Old Blackpool Road in Carleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde, demolished his old bungalow and began digging the foundations for his new home. He first spotted the skull and a broken antler. With help from his neighbour, Tony Scholey, and Jim Audus of Poulton Historical Society, followed by a more formal excavation carried out by John Hallam, Ben Edwards, Tony Stuart, and Adrian Lewis, Horace’s skeleton was recovered from layers of mud.

Examination revealed that he was four to six years old and, because he was due to shed his antlers, he was killed in winter. He had 17 injuries mainly caused by flint-tipped instruments to the ribs (highlighted by the triangles below).

Most intriguingly two barbed points were found. One of these was with a rib bone. The second was in the metatarsal bones in his left foot. The lesion, which would have taken 1-2 weeks to form, evidences that Horace was injured in an earlier hunt and had managed to escape his hunters on an earlier occasion.

Soil analysis revealed the presence of both ‘tree pollen’ and ‘tiny freshwater shellfish’ showing that Horace died in a shallow lake that was surrounded by trees. This suggests that Horace either fled into or was chased into the water and died from the collapse of his lungs caused by his injuries. Frustratingly for the hunters, but luckily for us, his corpse must have sunk before they could recover it.

Horace’s remains are of national importance because they provide evidence not only for the existence of elk around the end of the Ice Age, but also for our earliest local hunter-gatherer people who were known during the Iron Age as the Setantii and later as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Elk became extinct in Britain in during the Bronze Age. The bones of the last known elk were recovered from the river Cree in Scotland in 1997 and have been dated to 2829-2145BC. In other countries of Europe such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, they have survived, as well as in Asia and North America. Outside of Britain they are somewhat confusingly called moose whereas waipti are called elk.

When I began researching the lifestyle of elk I was fascinated to discover that, like our human ancestors, elk have been described as ‘semi-amphibious’. Their long limbs and broad feet make them particularly suited for traversing wetland landscapes and they are able not only to swim through water but dive down underneath it and eat submerged plants at depths of up to 5 metres below the surface!

At this time there would have been a mixture of birch-pine woodland, alder carr, fen woodland, reed beds, and reed swamp at the edges of the glacial lakes. Through the summer months elk would have fed on aquatic plants and in the winter they would have survived on the twigs and bark of trees. Elk are capable of rearing up and pulling down trees of up to six foot tall to access new growth.

The rutting season for elk is early September to late November. During displays they approach their rivals, tipping their antlers left and right, and calling in rhythm to their steps. Once they’ve defeated their rivals and mated their testosterone levels fall and they lose their antlers. It was at this point in his life that Horace was killed. Calves are born between April and July. The cows are fiercely protective of their offspring having been known to ‘face down wolves, bears and even helicopters’. It is possible that Horace’s sons and daughters wandered this land for several thousand years.

The severity of Horace’s injuries provides evidence both for the determination of the hunters and his will to survive. He was firstly injured by the barbed point of a harpoon which had stuck in his left foot, managing to limp away and survive for 1 – 2 weeks before the second hunt. It seems likely the flint-tipped instruments which struck his ribs were spears and additionally the barbed point of a harpoon lodged in his rib cage. David Barrowclough also speaks of an injury with an axe severing his tendons suggesting that his hunters, at one point, got very close. Perhaps this was how they managed to strike him 17 times in total before he dived, fell, or was chased into the lake.

A male elk in his prime would have been a prized kill. His massive body would have provided food for days, his thick hide clothing, and his bones may have been used to make more barbed points or perhaps elk bone mattocks akin to those used by the people of Star Carr 1000 years later.

How those ancient hunter-gatherers would have viewed these magnificent animals remains unknown. The deer-antlered headdresses from Star Carr are suggestive of rites in which the hunters became one with the animal they hunted, knowing it intimately, acting out its behaviours. It is possible they believed acting out a successful hunt would bring about success in he future.

Of course it’s less likely similar elk dances would have taken place due to the fact elk antlers could grow up to two metres and would have been incredibly heavy. Yet they would have been familiar with the elk’s lifestyle and one can imagine that the preparation for an elk hunt and the hunt itself were highly ritualised acts dependent on the will of the elk as a physical and spirit being and the guidance and support of the hunter deities.

Unfortunately, if a sacred and reverential relationship between elk and humans existed, it did not prevent the extinction of elk from Britain. They died for two main reasons. The first was that the weather grew too warm for them as thick-hided cold-adapted creatures used to surviving snows. They no doubt survived in Scotland for longer because it is cooler. The second reason was human hunting. If the ancient hunter-gatherers were aware of their plight they did not place it above their own needs. Like the equally monumental aurochs they hunted them into extinction.

Elk have not been seen in the British Isles for more than 3000 years. However they were reintroduced at the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands in 2007. A pair were flown by plane from Scandinavia and their first calf was born in 2011. It has been predicted that they will not only enhance biodiversity but tourism and opportunities for hunting in the area.

SOURCES

Alexander Fraser, ‘Country life today: how elk could save the Scottish countryside’, Country Life, (2019), https://www.countrylife.co.uk/news/country-life-today-may-31-2019-197056 (accessed 26/11/2019)
Benjamin Joseph Elliott, ‘Antlerworking Practices in Mesolithic Britain’ (PhD Thesis), University of York, (2012)
Clive Aslet, ‘After 3,000 years, the Highlands delivers a bonny baby elk’, The Telegraph, (2011),https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/countryside/8555072/After-3000-years-the-Highlands-delivers-a-bonny-baby-elk.html (accessed 26/11/2019)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)
Boards at the Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for the information and the images.

The Dwellers in the Water Country

In his History of the Fylde (1876) John Porter speaks of the ancient British tribe who inhabited the wetlands between the Mersey and the Wyre as ‘the Setantii or Segantii’ ‘the dwellers in the country of water’*. He then provides a colourful description of the way they lived based on Roman records:

The hardihood of the native Britons of these parts is attested by Dion Cassius, who informs us that they lived on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees, and were accustomed to brave hunger, cold, and all kinds of toil, for they would “continue several days up to their chins in water, and bear hunger many days.” In the woods their habitations were wicker shelters, formed of the branches of trees interwoven together, and, in the open grounds, clay or mud huts. They were indebted to the skins of animals slain in the chase for such scanty covering as they cared to wear, and according to Caesar and other writers, dyed their bodies with woad, which produced a blue colour, and had long flowing hair, being cleanly shaved except the head and upper lip.

He then goes on to express his doubts that the Setantii, or their neighbours, the Brigantes, who Cassius refers to, could be ‘reduced or exalted to such a amphibious condition’. Yet he notes that during their hunting expeditions across ‘wooded and marshy tracts’ ‘there is no question the followers of the chase would be more or less in a state of immersion during the whole time they were so engaged’.

Although exaggerated, Porter’s imaginings of the lifestyle of the Setantii contains elements of truth. Before its draining this landscape was marshland, lowland raised peat bog, alder carr, and damp oak woodland. Archaeological evidence dating from the end of the Ice Age to the time of Roman occupation shows that they hunted animals such as elk, aurochs, and red deer, travelled the rivers in dug-out canoes, and lived in wooden huts around the many lakes (the area was later referred to as ‘The Region Linuis’ ‘The Lake Region’ by the 9th century historian Nennius).

They traversed not only the rivers but the seas. The name of the Setantii tribe is derived from Ptolemy’s Geography (2CE) in which he notes the co-ordinates for Portus Setantiorum ‘The Port of the Setantii’ (which is now lost but may have been located near the mouth of the Wyre).

The dwellers in the water country feel important to me as someone living in the former lands of the Setantii because, during this time of climate crisis, water levels are rising, marshlands and lakes returning, and we are finally beginning to recognise the value of the watery places we drained off.

Over the past few decades organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust, and the RSPB have been working to restore drained off wetlands. Recently the Carbon Landscapes project started up with the aim of restoring an interconnected wilderness from the Wigan Flashes through the mosslands of Salford to the Mersey Wetlands Corridor.

It was of great interest for me to find out that the water country is being restored. I will soon be volunteering on this project and am hoping it will give me insights into the plants and wildlife of the landscapes of the Setantii and the tasks they did such as scrub clearance and building wooden walkways.

Over the next few months I am going to be sharing my research on the dwellers in the water country – the wetlands they inhabited, the way they lived, how they related to the land and its deities, in the hope it will provide clues as to how we might live in better relationship with our surroundings. I’m also going to be producing some creative work. Whether this is poems, stories, or perhaps even a novel, remains to be seen. I hope you will enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

~

*It is important to note that Porter’s description of the Setantii as ‘the dwellers in the country of water’ is based on their lifestyle and is not etymological. The root set- is also found in Seteia, the old name for the Mersey, but has no meaning in the Brittonic language. Andrew Breeze suggests it has been ‘corrupted’ from met– ‘to reap’ and may refer to the Setantii being fierce in battle as reapers of men rather than of crops. Another possibility is the root should be seg– from sego- ‘strong’.

The name of the Irish hero, Setanta, who later became the charioteering warrior Cu Chulainn, also derives from this root. Cassius speaks of the northern Britons driving chariots and Cu Chulainn’s fearsome battle rage, known as the ‘warp spasm’, would fit with being one of the reaping people.

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (History Press, 2008)
Edward Baines, The History of the County  Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster’, (J. Heywood, 1888). Available at https://archive.org/details/cu31924024699260/page/n8 (accessed 19/10/2019)
J. A. Giles (transl), Nennius, History of the Britons, (Project Gutenberg, 2006) Available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1972/1972-h/1972-h.htm (accessed 19/10/2019)
John Porter, History of the Fylde (W. Porter, 1876). Available at https://archive.org/details/historyoffyldeof00portiala/page/n4 (accessed 19/10/2019)

 

Mid-Winter Reflections

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The Mid-Winter Solstice arrives: a time to pause and reflect. It’s been a turbulent month. Floods have drowned much of Cumbria. Here in Penwortham in Lancashire we’ve not been badly affected but the Ribble’s been high and during heavy rain the roads and footpaths have taken on the apparel of rivers and streams.

The water’s been washing up into my dreams. In one I was working at a riding school where the horses could only be turned out at certain times due to tides covering the path to the fields. In another instead of roads we had transport akin to fairground water-rides.

This future is not unperceivable. Following the agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to reduce global warming to 2 degrees, the UK government announced 68 new shale gas drilling sites including a well in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.

Along with environmentalists and pagans across Britain I was outraged. A greener future will not be brought about by causing further damage to the landscape in a ruthless quest to extract expendable fossil fuel which benefits only rich share-holders. This can only mean more industry, more roads, more cars, more pollution, worse climate change and more floods.

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council stood by local people and refused to grant permission to Cuadrilla to drill at Roseacre and Little Plumpton. Cuadrilla have appealed and it was recently announced the decision will be made by the central government. With their plans to ‘get shale gas moving’ it’s obvious which way the decision will go. The last resort will be resistance at the sites themselves.

The atmosphere in Preston is increasingly edgy. On the 17th I received a call from a friend asking me to join anti-fracking protestors outside the County Hall to stand against a pro-fracking vigil. When I arrived there were no pro-frackers to be seen: it appears to have been a farce spread by Facebook. However seeing the anti-frackers with placards, a group walking past shouted “let the workers get their jobs”.

That very morning the Fishergate Centre and adjoining roads had been shut off because an ‘incendiary device’ was found in the men’s toilets. Luckily a member of the public put it out. It wasn’t a bomb but a lot of people were freaked out by the thought it could have been.

The war against IS is fabricating divisions in the city. Recently The Daily Mail made a false claim about Muslim no-go areas. Fortunately this has been refuted by the Lancashire Police and Muslim faith-workers. There are more homeless people on the streets than ever due to austerity.

It’s 16 degrees and plants are flowering and it doesn’t feel like winter. Within the tumult it is difficult to pause and find anything positive to reflect on.

Looking back, on personal and community levels it has been a good year. I published my first book: Enchanting the Shadowlands, presented it to Gwyn on Glastonbury Tor and held a successful book launch. I’ve performed ancient British and Greek seasonal myths at local festivals with Guests of the Earth. It’s possible this is the first time the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad has been told in the Old North for centuries.

My poem ‘Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate’ was published in the pioneering Gods & Radicals journal: A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Korova Poetry has had its ups and downs in numbers of attendees but is still going strong after over a year.

I’ve met Potia, Neil and Heron from the Dun Brython group and contributed to The Grey Mare on the Hill anthology (edited by Lee). We’re planning a group meeting and new devotional and creative endeavours for 2016. I’m also arranging additional events with the Oak and Feather Grove to supplement the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year.

I’ve learnt about the re-introduction of cranes in Norfolk and on the Somerset Levels. Over the past few years I’ve felt a growing connection with local wetlands. Much of Lancashire used to be lowland raised bog and marsh which is reflected in the name of the Romano-British tribe ‘the Setantii’ ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Over the past four centuries most of Lancashire’s wetlands have been drained and made into farmland. The most dramatic example is ‘Lancashire’s Lost Lake’: Martin Mere. Of its 15 mile diameter only the shrunken remnant of the mere, outlying lakes and place-names such as Mere Sands Wood and Mere Brow remain. However the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are doing valuable work restoring Martin Mere’s reed beds. Thousands of whooper swans and pink-footed geese over-winter there every year.

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One of WWT’s recent accomplishment is the opening of Steart Marshes. To protect the coastal village of Steart the flood walls have been breached, flooding the Steart peninsula creating new saltmarshes to absorb tidal surges. This is good news for the villagers and wildlife with avocet hatching eggs for the first time and water voles, otters, oystercatchers, lapwing and ringed plovers doing well. This proves it possible to live alongside nature in this time of rising tides.

One of my favourite destinations for a bike ride is Brockhole Nature Reserve. Lying 4 miles outside Preston, its lakes, reed beds, meadows, woodlands and floating visitor centre occupy the former site of a quarry. Opened in 2011 it is still developing. Last year on the Winter Solstice with the Oak and Feather Grove I attended the opening of a new stone circle built by John Lamb and a team of volunteers (the OaFs will be celebrating there again tomorrow afternoon).

Every time I visit I’m struck by how Brockholes reminds me of (how I imagine) the landscapes of our ancient British ancestors with its lake dwellings, wooden walkways and new circle of stones. At places like Brockholes and Martin Mere I am able to pause and find hope for a future lived harmoniously alongside the birds and animals of our wetland landscapes and divinities of our sacred watercourses and the deep.

On that note I would like to wish everybody a blessed solstice and a hopeful new year.

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