Lost amongst the trees

Casting a blanket over the shivering earth, ticking the sky, turning bleak land into a rich, shaded world: the woodland fills with life, and fills us with life.

The forest that once covered Europe is mainly lost, but enough stands to give a glimpse of the old continental blanket. The woodlands of Britain are largely plantations, but on the downs are ancient woodlands, and wherever land has been abandoned the trees come to reclaim their own.

It was written (and I cannot find where) that at a deep, cultural level the Germanic peoples and Mediterranean peoples are divided in their views of the forest – to the Germans it is a place of wonder, of joy and liberation, of regained youth; but for the Mediterranean peoples, descended from the culture of Rome, the forest is a dark, threatening place, the place in which the untamed tribes burst from the trees to slaughter Varrus and his legions. I do not know how true that is, but I do know that for Britons the woods bear a wonder not found in anything else.

Before there were farms and society there were the woods. Hobbes observes of man close to the state of nature:

For as there were Plants of Corn and Wine in small quantity dispersed in the Fields and Woods, before men knew their vertue, or made use of them for their nourishment, or planted them apart in Fields, and Vineyards; in which time they fed on Akorns, and drank Water:

Now all the political parties are talking of planting trees. That spoils it somehow. A million? Four million? Two billion in twenty years (clearly Diane has been at the figures: taking a four-month growing season and an average 8 hours of daylight, working a six-day week, that is 8.5 trees every second without ceasing and a staggering acreage and cost). It also depends on what sort of trees they are: in terms of growth and coverage a birch is worth a fraction of a percentage of an oak, and an oak a small percentage of a redwood.

I cannot tell if planting trees will make even the smallest difference to the changes in the world’s climate, heresy as that must sound to those who prefer soundbite to science, but they are more than drinkers of carbon dioxide, and spillers of it after they fall. They bind the soil, drain the ground and change the local climate, and they make a home for the tiny creatures which serve the rest of the land.

In Bengal, three hundred million people live in floodplains, and since the upstream forests were felled, the land has been drowned too many times to count. It flooded before the forests were felled in Bihar, but the intensity has only worsened. Plant your million trees in Bihar.

I wrote before of how the trees are beginning to heal Ethiopia – when the were lost the land dried and the thin soils blew away, and the people starved. Now small patches of forest are bringing the life back, and the bees to pollinate the plants which will grow again, and the moisture for field and pasture.

Even at home the landscape has been transformed by trees. Samuel Johnson described Scotland as largely treeless, and asked the lairds he visited why they did not create plantations, as their southern neighbours did. Defoe said he barely saw a tree between Berwick and Dunbar. Today Johnson or Defoe would not recognise the Middle Shires, wreathed as their are in woodlands, and the Highlands too. The forestry plantations were a despair to Highland landowners once as they swallowed grazing land, but between the plantations the land is now richer and the flocks are doing very well.

If a tree grows all its natural life, drinking the rich carbon dioxide about it, all that carbon dioxide is released again when it falls and decays – the net gain is nothing. A strong oak though may not fall for a thousand years, and a redwood for three thousand. Active forestry cuts the wood before it decays. Living among trees is a give-and-take and the best course it not always the natural course. We should tread lightly in places, but we should tread.

Maybe plant a tree for Christmas, in Ethiopia or Bihar? Do not do vain virtue-signalling though. Virtue action, by all means.

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Judicial review: the Manifesto

If the lofty bien-pensants of the legal profession are aghast, it must be a good thing. The Conservative and Unionist Manifesto for 2019 says:

We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

That is exactly what I have been saying for months.

The promised “Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission” could be a Yeatsian monster, but done well and carefully selected (did I leave my card?) it will be valuable. It heralds not a wholesale rewriting of the constitution (Conservatives, after all) but a review of whether it all fits together the way we thought it did. Basically, it is to overturn the Cherry/Miller case – and it needs overturning. I have commented previously on how to do that.

It is interesting too that the same paragraph drops the old commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act (the subject of another article, I feel coming on). Now says “update the Human Rights Act”, and administrative law. The threat of Corbyn and McDonnell looms dark over the nation, and anything which rebukes their desire to seize private funds and property, and to punish where there is no crime, is valuable. The European Convention on Human Rights may be a tottery bulwark against Communism, but it is something.

On judicial review specifically, action taken to reform it should codify the rules so that they are clear. This should strengthen the procedure, and improve public respect for it. Judges are accused of being political when they cass and annul administrative decisions, but if the rules are clear and clearly adhered to, they will have better protection from those accusations.

Look at the Wednesbury rules. These govern the propriety or otherwise of administrative decisions and so these rules are the basis of judicial review, but they are entirely judge-made rules. As they are invented by a judge, another may reinvent them, and as long as the rules are open to flexible interpretation, they empower judges where judges are not meant to be. The rules are well-meant – they are intended to ensure that powers are exercised for the purpose for which they were given and not for a corrupt purpose. They are valuable in that they obviate the need for every Act of Parliament to specify limits and provisos on the powers it grants. It is uncomfortable though that the courts have had to invent these rules, because powers are given by Parliament and in principle no one else should be able to countermand their exercise. Those rules to imply limits on powers granted should have been made by Parliament, and they should be in the forthcoming review.

However, there is another wrinkle. State powers are not the only ones governed by the Wednesbury rules. There are private powers too, like the powers that a trust deed may give to trustees entrusting them with authority to manage or sell the assets entrusted to them, and these private powers also use the language of discretion and decision. Just as property may be entrusted to the care of a trustee, so public powers are entrusted to officials or councils. It is a healthy sign if “trust” is understood as a common concept, howsoever high the trustee may be, or think he is, and governed by the same common rules.

Another court decision has just been published, in which the High Court determined that even in a private contract where it gives one party discretion in his or her actions, that discretion is subject to the Wednesbury rules. This is not quite the first time that a judge has explicitly invoked Wednesbury over private powers; it has appeared hesitantly on occasion since the Socimer case in 2004 but seems to be becoming established, not as a rule to be implied into every contract but as a rule to interpret words such as “reasonably” and “discretion”. That does accord with sense and principle.

In any consolidation, restatement or change to the Wednesbury rules for administrative decisions, Parliament might want to see if they are also inadvertently leaning on private property too. The concept that they all rely on the common concept of entrusted authority is a comforting one.

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To the Antiquity itself I think nothing due

Last night I was about to post a long quote from Aristotle that I thought relevant to today’s political controversies, but I first found the full context to be in discussion of a Platonic proposition found quite distasteful in our day (though not so far removed from certain ideas promoted on the Left). I was then sharply reminded that Aristotle is not to be approved as a philosopher.

Aristotle was without doubt a wise man in the limitations of his day, but he was a heathen, his philosophy based on false premises. He also came out that Greek tradition of ideas which looked at the actions and characters of men and treated them, in some extreme as Plato did, as being capable of exact classification and of mechanical manipulation – a clockwork orange – (which again is not far from the ideas current on the Left).

Hobbes condemned philosophers and theologians who swallowed the ideas of fallible, heathen Aristotle, ignoring two thousand years of advance. He wrote:

There is nothing I distrust more than my Elocution; which neverthelesse I am confident (excepting the Mischances of the Presse) is not obscure.

That I have neglected the Ornament of quoting ancient Poets, Orators, and Philosophers, contrary to the custome of late time, (whether I have done well or ill in it,) proceedeth from my judgment, grounded on many reasons.

  • For first, all Truth of Doctrine dependeth either upon Reason, or upon Scripture; both which give credit to many, but never receive it from any Writer.
  • Secondly, the matters in question are not of Fact, but of Right, wherein there is no place for Witnesses.
  • There is scarce any of those old Writers, that contradicteth not sometimes both himself, and others; which makes their Testimonies insufficient.
  • Fourthly, such Opinions as are taken onely upon Credit of Antiquity, are not intrinsically the Judgment of those that cite them, but Words that passe (like gaping) from mouth to mouth.
  • Fiftly, it is many times with a fraudulent Designe that men stick their corrupt Doctrine with the Cloves of other mens Wit.
  • Sixtly, I find not that the Ancients they cite, took it for an Ornament, to doe the like with those that wrote before them.
  • Seventhly, it is an argument of Indigestion, when Greek and Latine Sentences unchewed come up again, as they use to doe, unchanged.

Lastly, though I reverence those men of Ancient time, that either have written Truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out our selves; yet to the Antiquity itself I think nothing due: For if we will reverence the Age, the Present is the Oldest. If the Antiquity of the Writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honor is given, were more Ancient when they wrote, than I am that am Writing: But if it bee well considered, the praise of Ancient Authors, proceeds not from the reverence of the Dead, but from the competition, and mutuall envy of the Living.

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Ethiopia, mending paradise

It is hard to express how beautiful Ethiopia can be, and how harsh, and the two are complementary here. If we can think only of the hellish picture of famine, we do not know the land at all. It is as if all of Africa were compressed in one corner, with its lush forest, bare desert, grassland, and vertical mountains.  Here antelopes, giraffes and zebras leap across the plains, and lions, cheetahs and unique wolves hunt; here eagles and vultures soar from peaks above scorched land seeking the living and the dead, and beyond them verdant forests echo with joyous monkeys. In the waters crocodiles wait. Camels ply ancient trading roads in the desert. Here too are the unique churches of the Ethiopians, some carved whole and in one piece out of the living rock.

We know little about the land except the snatches we hear and see, and those do not do justice to this bewildering land.

When Napier was dispatched to Abyssinia (to punish the Emperor Theodore for his misdeeds) it was an unknown land and the expedition was in all received opinion doomed to disaster as no army could march in order through a trackless land where every advance was blocked by a razor-edged mountain range, and he was assured he could not even land his boats without their being sunk by herds of hippopotamus. What he found was a harsh, wilderness land indeed, but one of beauty and ancient culture through which he advanced to his task without loss.

He would find a great change today:  the former Communist government ravaged the land in the name of progress, and recovery is slow. Seeing the sights of Biblical famine in the 1980s you would disbelieve Adam Smith’s observation that “a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth”; but Smith was recounting recent history in Europe and not the unforgiving capriciousness of the African climate.  Still, here in Ethiopia it was human stupidity and malice which caused it.

There will always be poor seasons, drought and locusts, and misgovernment, and the latter is deadly. The Emperor was overthrown for reacting too slowly to a famine, but a year’s dearth was as nothing compared with what the Communists did. Their disruption of farm life and collectivisations did as they have done throughout the world – starved the people, and no worse famine has been seen in that land. Felling the forests denuded the land and left dust. Worst of all the afflicted places was Tigray, once the cultural heartland of the nation. It is struggling to recover even now, but there is hope.

If anyone is tempted to believe that humanity, crawling small upon the face of a vast Earth is incapable of destroying the climate and ecological system, he should look on Ethiopia. Forest were felled to produce fields for crops but just produced dust as the light soil blew away in the winds. The trees held it together, and made a home for wildlife. The trees made their own local climate which allowed man and beast to live – but when the trees were gone, the land died.

Now there is regrowth. The BBC’s Justin Rowlett recently reported on an effort to regrow destroyed forests in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The land is transformed and the bees are returning. (African bees, he found, and as I could have told him, are more aggressive and sting more violently than softy European bees – even elephants are afraid of African bees.) Without bees to pollinate plants, life struggles, so their return presages rebirth.

Worldwide forest are being felled, and we have the luxury here in Britain to be aghast at this, safe in the knowledge that we have already felled our islands’ own lush forests for farmland, millennia ago. There has been new plantation though – the Forestry Commission for a hundred years now has been busy filling with trees areas once bare – Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson who described trees moorland in the north would not recognise the lush pine forests there now, and it was done not from some care for the environment let alone ideas about climate change (not back in 1919) but because the Government needed wood. That is the key to success: a practical motive and a plan for sustainable forestry following over generations.

In America forestry is massive business, but the more successful forest plantations are those which plant as much as they fell, looking two hundred years ahead. If we know that our children will benefit, we care for the future, but if all our effort is taxed away at the end, we have no motive for sustainability.

In the meantime though, Ethiopia is making steps to recover Eden where once there was Gehenna. That is far, far more practical than marches and petitions. The efforts in Ethiopia to replant the lost forests and restore life, efforts carried out by Ethiopians to benefit their generations to come, are worth the praises of the world.

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Ultima Thule at the woke frontier

An invisible star has a new name. In the unfathomably far outer solar system, in the Kuiper Belt, the NASA New Horizons probe encountered, passed close to and photographed a body with the romantic name “(486958) 2014 MU69”. Even here, four billion miles from the Earth, where heat is unknown, mindless political correctness can reach its fingers.

There no criticism from me of the International Astronomical Union, nor ever has been, and for NASA nothing but awed admiration. The concept of sending a probe so far and fast and reaching an invisible object with pinpoint accuracy goes anything we can imagine. The New Horizons team have achieved the unimaginable with the first exploration of a cold, classical Kuiper belt object.

Its new name is ‘Arrokoth’, which is a good name. ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Powhatan/Algonquian language which used to be spoken in Maryland, where the team is based. It is good to hear at the new frontier an echo of a language once driven out of its ancient homeland, to hear its honour restored in this small way.

When first found though, observers gave (486958) 2014 MU69 the nickname “Ultima Thule”, and used that name for months. It is an uneven dumbbell shape and they even named one end “Ultima” and the other “Thule”. This name is of course a widely used metaphor for ‘a land beyond the farthermost’, and a natural thought when considering the farthermost object visited by man, or at least by his probes.

The came the objections.

The press release said that “Ultima Thule, one of Arrokoth’s first names, is a term used in ancient times in accordance with a place beyond the known world. However, the term was also used by Nazis and right-wing extremists when referring to a mythical place for the Aryan race.”

Here we have it – the neo-Nazis are ruining another thing for the rest of us. They have form in this: there is an ancient Indian symbol used not just in Hindu culture but across the world in many ages, usually with a positive, even celebratory implication and which became suddenly popular as a good-luck symbol in the west in the early twentieth century – but then the Nazis nicked it and it can never, ever be used without an implication of mass-murder drawn in the darkest corners of human nature. I do not even name it. It is irredeemable. I refuse to lose Thule though.

There is a better reason for not naming (486958) 2014 MU69 after Thule, because it is not the furthest humanity can reach and it will look daft when another body in the Kuiper Belt or the more distant Oort Cloud is found, and because I do not want astronomers purloining the name of Ultima Thule any more than I want murderous race-myth socialists having it.

For Longfellow this icy land as the ultimate destination was a vision of heaven:

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

The mystery land, the Θούλη described by Pytheas has had many interpretations. The description of Pytheas matches the coast of Norway most closely, but the Roman sailors who saw Shetland afar off named if Thule too, and later ages placed it about the Faroes, then Iceland, then Greenland, ever further off. Perhaps it is such a place that it should never be identified, so that it can remain a place of dreams, and then even the Kuiper Belt is not far enough.

Joanna Kavenna wrote a fascinating book on the identification and the myth of Thule, and travelled to many places that have been identified with it. She saw the ends of the Earth and spoke to people of many races and tongues, and met the name in ancient texts and poetry, and in modern poetry and art. She also found the lazy salons where proto-Nazis had met who wanted to claim Thule as a mythical Urheimat for their imagined pure Germanic race, but this was a minor aside at the fringe, and if there are modern loonies who follow it, frankly, they are not worth bothering with. The woke souls who forbid others from naming Ultima Thule are not opposing the neo-Nazis; they are empowering them, and such people should not be given the power to steal for themselves an ancient myth that belongs to all of Western culture.

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