All the land in flowery squares,
This is a line from Tennyson’s The Gardener’s Daughter a relatively early poem by the bard. It is referring to the countryside in May, which he was familiar with while growing up in Lymndale. The squares are small hedged fields filled with meadow flowers and much more. After then telling us it is a glorious May day he goes on to describe some of the sights and sounds.
The steer forgot to graze,
And, where the hedge-row cuts the pathway, stood,
Leaning his horns into the neighbour field,
And lowing to his fellows. From the woods
Came voices of the well-contented doves.
The lark could scarce get out his notes for joy,
But shook his song together as he near’d
His happy home, the ground. To left and right,
The cuckoo told his name to all the hills;
The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm;
The redcap whistled; and the nightingale
Sang loud, as tho’ he were the bird of day.
Although he is telling of a beautiful Spring day these would have been familiar sights and sounds to a young Tennyson, which sadly we can not share with him. The doves mentioned would most probably be turtle doves, which are now on the endangered list. It is still possible to hear the aerial song of the skylark but you deem yourself very fortunate to hear a cuckoo these days, ouzels are still familiar because it is an old name for blackbird but the beautiful song of the nightingale is no longer heard in the Wolds.
Only about ten years before Tennyson wrote this poem the Ordnance Survey were publishing their first set of accurate one inch to one mile scale maps of Lincolnshire. This was encouraged by a letter which stated “In the county of Lincoln the spirit of adventurous agricultural improvement has been most eminently displayed. Individuals have improved their fortunes and the nation acquired resources from their efforts. New efforts are now making in the same county and these efforts may be rendered more efficacious by the aid of an Ordnance map.”
The most obvious improvement was the final draining of the Fens but enclosures, selective breeding, crop rotation and eventually mechanisation would propel food production forward through the nineteenth century in an effort to keep pace with a rapidly expanding population.
Then the import of cheap grain followed by cheap meat, after the invention of refrigeration, from across the empire pushed farming into a slump for a while but two world wars put the pressure back on to more self sufficiency, which persisted through most of the twentieth century. The typically arbitrary government figure to be 50% self sufficient in food consumption for the nation still persists, while strangely as an island nation we import 75% of all the fish we eat partly due to catastrophic management of EU waters.
The near total collapse of the marine ecosystem in the North Sea was due to the fact that we had become too efficient at fishing and also indiscriminate fishing with fleets from around Europe exploiting a fragile and finite resource. Even twenty years later the waters off the east coast of England are still only slowly recovering and we still have to rely heavily on imported fish from non EU countries who managed their fisheries much more carefully.
The same thing could happen on land as our farmers have also become too efficient. Such a large area as Lincolnshire and the Fens totally devoted to intensive agriculture is dangerous to the general ecosystem. Already in the peat fens the rich black soils are almost wasted away making it necessary to totally re-evaluate farming methods there. The thin soils of the chalk wolds are only viable with the help of copious amounts of artificial fertiliser which then drains into our rivers. We have many small nature reserves but some larger areas also need to be set aside that are big enough to be viable reservoirs for wildlife conservation and regeneration.
Today the Wolds continues to be the land of flowery squares each May however the squares are much larger and are all bright yellow. These are endless fields of rape regularly sprayed so that no other life form can compete leaving the land sterile. In comparison Tennyson’s flowery squares were filled with a great variety of herbs, grasses and wildflowers which encouraged a profusion of insects. This is why there is no longer the variety of summer insect eating birds that Tennyson grew up with. No amount of ringing and data collection is going to change this. In fact to Tennyson’s generation the counting of birds would have been thought of as ludicrous as there were so many with flocks in their hundreds or thousands.
With successive governments intent on letting the island’s population continue to grow at an alarming rate and the south of England, which was once the main producer of food, gradually turning into a polluted, gridlocked megapolis there is little chance that the pressure on Lincolnshire to produce more food will ease. Yet this county too suffers from ever greater pollution. It is constant crop spraying which though invisible is deadly to many insects which are the base of the food chain for most other wildlife. Even in the countryside there needs to be large pollution free zones to give wildlife a chance.
Currently the only large nature reserves in Lindsey are pinned to the coast filling the gaps between industry and tourism. There needs to be an equally large inland area that is protected; one that already has a naturally mixed landscape that can harbour a diversity of wildlife free from the effects of intensive agriculture. Lymndale is such a place and was also home to Alfred Lord Tennyson for the crucial formative years of his life when he learnt to recognise all the sights and sounds of the countryside which then made his later poems so much more appealing.
It will never be possible to recover the thousands of acres of meadow, heath, marsh and fen lost in the county to the priority given to food production but in recognition for Lincolnshire’s eminent spirit of continued adventurous agricultural improvement, which was first recognised 200 years ago, it would be appropriate to be able to go back in time to a corner of the county to witness how much has changed in that time both good and bad. Then Tennyson, as a still light hearted young man, was able to blissfully stroll through the countryside serenaded by bird song and have just the hum of insects as background noise rather than the obligatory drone of industry and engines that is ever present in our modern world.
Even in his later more troubled years he was able to conjure up soothing images in his poetry such as towards the end of In Memoriam A.H.H. when after dwelling on dark thoughts he was still able to frame within it pictures of pleasing surroundings.
I climb the hill: from end to end
Of all the landscape underneath,
I find no place that does not breathe
Some gracious memory of my friend;
No grey old grange, or lonely fold,
Or low morass and whispering reed,
Or simple stile from mead to mead,
Or sheepwalk up the windy wold;
Nor hoary knoll of ash and haw
That hears the latest linnet trill,
Nor quarry trench’d along the hill
And haunted by the wrangling daw;
Nor runlet tinkling from the rock;
Nor pastoral rivulet that swerves
To left and right thro’ meadowy curves,
That feed the mothers of the flock;
But each has pleased a kindred eye,
And each reflects a kindlier day;
And, leaving these, to pass away,
I think once more he seems to die.
This extract is less flowery in many ways than his earlier poem above. His heart is heavy and the phrasing compact with several abbreviations like haw and daw for hawthorn and jackdaw. A little further on there is a line “And flood the haunts of hern and crake,”. Hern is heron and crake is and abbreviation of corncrake another bird that has been lost from the fields of Lincolnshire mainly due to fundamental changes in farming practises.
No poem more clearly illustrates how the countryside is as much a mental as well as physical refuge, which we all need from time to time to recharge body and spirit. It was written at a time before Tennyson found success as a poet but had left Lincolnshire to live close to London. He had to deal with the untimely deaths of his father and his closest friend. His time at Cambridge was aborted as later was his engagement. He had lost money in a bad investment and the mental illness which his father had suffered was affecting two of his brothers and he felt he was also not immune.
Few of us are totally immune or fortunate enough to avoid such modern pressures or the toxicity of our crowded island and at times need space, quiet and clean air to breathe and unwind. Tennyson seems to have innately understood this from an early age, as mental health was a constant issue within his family, and despite a tendency himself towards melancholy was able to find solace in long country walks.
More than ever in this increasingly pressurised world in which we live the need to unwind is paramount for our own well being. This is not possible unless there is good access to natural spaces for everyone. This surprisingly includes people living in the predominantly rural county of Lincolnshire where the intensification and industrialisation of farming often only accommodating large, sterile arable fields, even at the expense of rights of way, makes it difficult sometimes for even country folk to commune fully with nature. This is why areas designated to reconnect with nature are as important in rural areas as they are on the edge of towns, because they offer a greater opportunity to get a more complete experience of what is left of the wild in this increasingly urban land. Good access to a large island of less intensive agriculture managed to promote wildlife within a sea of intensive agriculture would bring greater rewards for everyone. The Wolds are the uplands of Lincolnshire and as with other uplands should be treated more sympathetically but being Lincolnshire with its rural expertise this could probably be achieved more effectively but this time with the emphasis on producing more wildlife per hectare than food.