By anybody’s best guess, Chanctonbury Ring in the South Downs was rich with human activity as early as The Bronze Age. It wasn’t inhabited, but tools and items have been found there that might have been brought over hundreds of years and used or deposited in rituals. Now it is the peaceful hilltop grazing ground for one of the luckier herds of free range cattle in this country. And it is open to the public for walks. We got out good and early in the morning and we drove there.
As you begin to walk up the hill you pass a beech tree, clinging to a mud bank. The water runnels of many years down the hill and through the chalky soil have exposed huge areas of root network. The tree still stands strong and tall, but children play in the roots. It’s a rare chance to see the amount of a tree that needs to be underground in order to properly deal with those winds. In Cornwall the other day I remarked on an onshore wind turbine to Chris the driver. “An astonishing amount of concrete under those things,” he said, gnomically. And my imagination went to the earthwork, the digging and the pouring. To the disrupted habitats and ruined mycelium. I remembered again how everything has a cost, which was of course what Chris was angling for. “Good though, I suppose it’ll be worth the disruption over time.” “They have to ship ’em from the Netherlands,” he continued. “Not even made in England.” He doesn’t like them. I’m off to set to work. The topic quietly dropped.
But I started thinking about that weight of concrete. And then I started thinking about trees and roots. If you make a tall thing that’s supposed to be blown at, of course you have to make sure it doesn’t fall over. Trees come up slowly, and as they come up they go down into the soil and explore, taking nutrients and holding themselves in the wind. They meet other trees, and the networks of mycelium connect them further and help them share information over long distances, I am told. Often we draw a root network as a little ball. Capability Brown did discover that you can cut a tree out and move it. It’ll take years for that tree to be established again though. I wonder what sort of trauma such a thing would experience. There’s an incredible documentary – “Taming the Garden” – where you watch it being done on a large scale. But a properly established tree is like an iceberg. And this soaked off chalky ball of roots in the South Downs is good illustration. The tree still holds up fine so there’s evidently still a load of buried roots pulling into the side of the hill.
It’s a shame we can’t root wind turbines like trees. A great big lump of concrete is certainly inelegant – I’m with Chris there. Nevertheless it’s good we are trying to take more of our energy from renewable sources. Refining those methods and making them elegant and sympathetic might take centuries but surely the more we can work with nature the happier we and the planet will be. We aren’t separate from nature but boy we spend way too much of our time and effort trying to pretend we are – or that we control it. Because it’s bigger than us, and always will be if we think of ourselves as not being part of it. And as soon as we realise we are part of it then we have to come to terms with what we’ve done to it and to ourselves in our attempts to subjugate it.
We lay in the morning sun on a bank up there, overlooking the sweeping Sussex Downs. We looked at the cows and caught the sun and it was good. Good to ground and to make the best of a sunny day – still a rare commodity this season. More like this and warmer please. Especially while I’m staying here in lovely Brighton with Lou and the pussies.