As spring comes to the fore, and the bluebells show their colours in the south facing hedgerows - racing against the unfurling of the fresh green leaves that will eclipse them in the coming weeks - quiet places are now filled with birdsong, sending coded messages over our heads, in more than one sense. The glow of the more intense light picks out the glinting of mica in the granite blocks that built an old farm, long ago, and I find myself pausing to wonder at the strength and ancient machinery and methods that must have been employed to roll these huge blocks in to the semblance of a dwelling. Before - long before - they were incorporated here, they must have rolled some distance from the nearby granite promontory of Carn Brea, and lain in fields of grazing livestock, or have been used to improvise a rough wall.
I pass this old farmhouse - present on even the oldest maps, and giving its name to the surrounding estate - when I walk to meet my son from school. Whenever I have a few extra minutes in the schedule, I enjoy this little detour. I enjoy seeing it in the sun, when the stone glints with silver and orange-red staining of iron; and it looks wonderful in the rain, when the shade of the walls have more contrast, and the largest blocks seem to grow in size and dominance, and the grass that runs up to the back of it shines brilliant green.
The large bulk of the farmhouse is now converted in to multiple dwellings, and the area at the front has been adapted to accommodate cars. Gravel now lies where I imagine a vegetable garden used to be, and the incursion of these little granitic morsels is out of kilter with the much grander blocks that make up the house. New houses have grown up all around, separated from the farmhouse by a block-paved road, and I often muse that the people living in the new houses have a much nicer view (of the farmhouse) than the inhabitants of the beautiful old farm!
Is it whimsical and unhelpful to daydream of how this area used to look? Is it churlish to resent the presence of houses that are doubtless cherished and hospitable homes to numerous families? I hope not, for I can't help but indulge in some time-travel whenever I pass this way. Though the need for houses is obviously greater now, with a much larger population than this area had three hundred years ago, I can't help but see these changes as ex-changes: we are increasing the habitations for humans at the expense of the space left for wildlife, and consequently decreasing our own opportunities to interact with the natural world. The small mammals -hedgehogs, foxes, badgers and stoats - that would have been frequent cohabitants of this area even one hundred years ago, now seem exotic to us: exotic, defined as 'coming from somewhere else'. And those areas of 'else' are shrinking, and becoming less connected, further damaging the potential for populations of these native mammals to persist.
Making the environment where we live increasingly human-centric may seem, superficially, sensible; after all, Homo Sapien is the top-predator, and there are lots of us. But the decrease in diversity is a loss to us, as much as it is to the communities of nature that we displace; we deprive ourselves of a sense of place in a web of life, and as hedgerows disappear and are replaced by walls, we erode our connection with the changing seasons and the thrill of sudden, startled birdsong as we pass by.
As a society, we accept that solitary confinement is the ultimate sanction, meted-out to only the criminals with the most disturbing CVs, yet with our communal condoning of ever more expansive housing, with minimal trees and shrubs, we effectively confine ourselves in the built environment.
99% of our evolution - nearly all of the 50,000 years our species has been in existence - has been in a natural setting, surrounded by greenery, and living in communities of a size which allowed us to know the majority of those we came in to contact with. As we simultaneously increase the range of our communications using technology, expanding our sphere of awareness to beyond the imagination of our forebears even 100 years ago, and decrease our opportunities to interact with other species, we fundamentally skew our perception as to where we ‘fit’ on the planet: we place ourselves in the centre of the picture, with other aspects as accessories, background. Evolution, though, does not move so quickly, and our eyes are still attuned to distinguish more colours of green than any other hue – a vestige of our species’ millennia in forests and on plains. In our enthusiasm for technology and wonder at the power to communicate, there is a need to place other things at the centre of the ‘selfie’ trend – trees, rocks and wild animals – to remind us that our local, non-human communities, are still an important part of our lives.