Thursday, 16 July 2009

Wildlife Wabi Sabi and the Opposite

Great Bustard called Fergus

What do a Great Bustard (above), a Japanese concept (wabi sabi) and a butterfly have in common? Lots I think.

I've just spent two wonderful days on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire recording for wildlife programmes for Radio 4, and each day spoke volumes about us humans and our sense of the wild . Day one was on Martin Down on the Hampshire border, a beautiful area of chalk grassland surrounded by a sea of agriculture.

Martin Down

It was a lovely, sunny day with a gentle breeze that made the grasses swish and rustle. As we walked through it clouds of butterflies flew into the air, joining many skylarks who sang their hearts out above us. It is a magical place if you like life in miniature - because the grass is alive with all kinds of insects - and scattered all around are tiny but incredibly beautiful flowers. Ladies bedstraw, hay rattle, orchids of many types, wild carrot, fairy flax mixed with fritillaries, marbled whites, small blues and a whole host of others.

Wild Parsnip covered in insects

There is something heart stoppingly lovely about a butterfly on a summer flower. Both are so transient, so gorgeous for such a short time. They invoke a sense of yearning or longing for the unknown, something I think that is uniquely human.

Dark Green Fritillary on Greater Knapweed

The Japanese call this Wabi Sabi - a Japanese understanding of beauty that acknowledges that everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete. The transience of the butterfly and the flower combined with their natural imperfections create a sense of yearning that is hard to capture in words. This sense of beauty also brings about feelings of protection and respect. I wish we felt this all the time about life around us.

Martin Down and other chalk grasslands have a sense of balance that is worth contemplating for a while. They are so varied and diverse because the soil is quite poor in nutrients, nothing is allowed to dominate, especially tall, overpowering grasses that block everything else. The plants have just enough to survive, not too much, not too little. Quite a good model for society I think. At the moment our western societies are like over nutrified, over fertilised mono-cultured fields that have way too much pesticide - so diversity is suppressed and only those plants which like those conditions thrive. On the other hand a chalk grassland is much more egalitarian, each has what it needs and no more. I am sure there is some new principle for founding society in this!

Martin Down - areas of waving grasses are mixed with short, grazed plains full of small but immensely varied plantlife

But back to wabi sabi - he Victorians obviously didn't experience it when they looked at a Great Bustard, which wandered the plains of Salisbury, East Anglia and Yorkshire in the 19th C. Despite being a magnificent and awesome bird, the English answer to an ostrich, the Victorians only saw in the Bustard only posh hats and, some say, a good dinner - although this is strenuously denied by Dave Waters who started The Great Bustard Project which is reintroducing them right now. According to Dave's research Victorians would rather have eaten badger! But whatever - they became extinct 177 years ago.

Tail feathers of the Great Bustard, much coveted by hat loving Victorians.

The Great Bustard - wonderful.

But this year some of the introduced birds have bred for the first time - and the babies are doing well - see the website for some special photos. The location is secret to protect them from potential egg robbers next year (bustards are site faithful, so if they know were the young are now they will know where to get eggs next time).

We have a chance of bringing back the Great Bustard to our plains and hills, unlike the Great Auk or the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon which have slipped over the edge and only now inhabit our sense of regret.

A Great Bustard on Salisbury plain has Wabi Sabi, try a trip with the Bustard Project and see if you agree.

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