Friday, 20 March 2015

The Philistines Guide to Nature (1)

The Philistines Guide are a series of occasional postings giving my sometimes jaundiced view on the many different issues of the day. Usually humorous, retold with the candour of a type that is typical of a 'Lad from Yorkshire'
Today's topic is nature.
If you search for a definition of nature. You will find that like nature there are a myriad of differing definitions. Nature is unconstrained and whenever you try to define something that is unconstrained. Its a rule of nature that you are bound to fail. However, (there is always a 'however' with me, its part of my nature) I like the Merriam-Webster definition:

the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

Nature has many facets and has been worshipped for millennia as a god - 'the green man' is a typical representation. Nature is often given a female persona of being a 'mother'. I'm not sure that from experience that mother is always the best description. Unless we also include the American derivation of the word! We often just view a pretty flower or some landscape as a wonderful representation of mother nature. But we also have to recognise that nature is not always benign. View a stormy sea and the power of mother nature becomes quite obvious to behold. (thinking about it a bit like my mother when she was wound up) There is also the old anecdote - that nature is red in tooth and claw. Indicating at least a basic understanding of natures unpredictability, unreasoned danger and power, should be given some deference.

As far as man is concerned, we are finite, we have a life and then we are gone. Our life is organised and measured by a ticking clock. Man's lifetime is less than a heartbeat in the lifetime of nature. Mother nature has no such time constraints placed upon her. 

Man has this intrinsic belief that he can over come any thing that nature might have created. So we see the most inappropriate things done. Things that defy common logic and basic understanding, seemingly done just because we can. Take for instance flood water management - nature brings a variable amount of rainfall throughout the year. It falls into a catchment area that can be small or huge in area. Over the millennia nature has carved out rivers and created flood plains. Nature has created natural order. However, when it comes to man. Instead of working with nature, in a sympathetic way. In effect to collaborate with nature to provide the things we want and need. Like small scale hydro electric (renewable) generation on our rivers. We prefer to act in isolation creating an imbalance that nature will ultimately put right. 

So we attempt to contain flood water. So that we can allow the building of houses on flood plains. We effectively set nature a challenge. Then in a rather curious way - unintentionally we help nature to overcome the constraints that we have put in place. A water catchment area is a living breathing thing. On our scale its huge and hard for us to fully comprehend all the intricacy. So with our inbuilt myopia of understanding we make lots of small changes. rain deposits huge amounts of water across the UK every year.

Up on the hills that define the catchment area boarders. We pull up trees and farm the newly available land. To create the farm land we tore up trees which are able to transfer huge amounts of water into the soil. (one bit of research produced a figure which found that trees can soakaway 73%  more water, than short cropped grassland) The grass land is short cropped because we habitually roam sheep up there. Sheep can very quickly compact the soil even further. So when it rains instead of the landscape soaking up the water. Water will find its own level (nature at work again) and it runs down hill along the surface. But the land owner has seen the water forming into pools flooding the grass land. So he excavates drains to help the water run off. The drainage ditches are connected to small streams that normally meander down the hillside.  Even the heather moors fare no better as vast tracts of land are given over to grouse shooting. Heather is periodically burnt back to encourage new growth and the natures natural peat sponge, that takes many thousands of years to form is also damaged and destroyed.

But man (lowland farmer) has also straightened and built up the sides to encourage the water to move down even quicker. He does not want the water to flood onto his land. Small streams join into bigger streams that then meander quietly through the landscape. However, when there is a lot of water on the hillside. Flash flooding occurs, so once more man steps in. He takes out all the remaining meanders and tries to speed up the flow of water into the main river courses.  Along the valley bottom the main river has created rich flat meadow land (known for thousands of years as flood meadows) These were farmed for generations sympathetically as flood meadows. Now we encourage the farmer to change farming methods. By paying them to farm a flood meadow landscape unnaturally. Whenever the flood meadow floods we give him more money as compensation. 

However, the nature of the catchment has been changed by man. Instead of a natural regulated flow, controlled by nature even small downpours can create  flash flooding. The people who built houses on the flood meadow in the flood plain start to complain. In comes man once again. He throws up huge flood banks, in an attempt to control the flow. He takes out any remaining meanders. He even dredges in an attempt to contain an additional but tiny amount of the whole flash flood.  He fails spectacularly time and again because he believes he can beat nature rather than work with nature.

Global warming is changing the weather patterns mainly into longer spells of dry weather. Which are followed by short periods of intense rainfall. Those once in 100 years flood occurrences are beginning to surprise us. Because they are occurring much more frequently. The reaction is to grow the flood defences ever higher and longer. Up on the hills improvements are made to get the extra water off quicker. The cycle continues and the issue is now compounded by rising water levels and sea surges which effectively are bringing more water back in to the estuary and backing up the rivers. The floods grow increasingly higher and over top the defences. The answer is to build them higher.

Continued in  The Philistines Guide to Nature (2)

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