Green travel article

Memories of a Green Traveller

(contributed by George Hill)

Here are a few thoughts from one green commuter . . .

Every working day I cycle along a busy road to put my bike on a train, then cycle again on more busy roads at the other end. But surprisingly the roads are not always busy just with cars! This morning I was cycling to work when I heard, faintly, a familiar birdsong above the traffic roar of the A-road. Perched in view on a twig above the roadside hedge, it was my first yellowhammer of the year, singing its "Little-Bit-Of-Bread-And-No-Cheese" song - except that the “Cheese” was drowned by the traffic rumble. A mile further on (between cars) I heard a great spotted woodpecker drumming. Many years ago I used to hear a corn bunting along with the yellowhammer - but alas! the cornies have gone, now. We must all change our habits before too much else also becomes memory.

During thirty years as a green commuter, I have spotted far too many things to describe. Once, cycling to work alongside a long car queue, I looked over the hedge that the drivers could not see past. Playing peacefully in the stubble field, in full sunshine at nine in the morning, were foxes - a vixen and three lively cubs. I watched them for nearly ten minutes, while the cars grumbled past. They were still there when I left. Another time I saw no less than four mad March hares in one field. Once, a weasel just missed my wheels. Last autumn I saw a rabbit following a stoat - what on earth was going on there? Other wildlife is unmoving; the local kestrel often stares down disdainfully at me from his high perch. In hot weather, some wildlife dances the summer away: along the roadsides, large skipper and common blue butterflies flicker (both are to be found along the Sandbach bypass). Clouds of chimney-sweeper moths can make the grass verges shimmer on certain days. Yet they are only left in peace from the slipstream and roar of the traffic for brief intervals between vehicles, when moments of real life are felt and heard, only for moments of time. In one such pause, I heard a clicking noise from some roadside trees; only I was able to spot the spotted flycatcher, feeding its young in an ivy –covered nest on the side of a slender oak only a couple of paces from the busy verge where the world drove by.
One also sees the casualties of the roads, the pitiful detritus left by the traffic tide along the road edges. Not all the flotsam is tragic; I have a bag-full of useful adjustable spanners and other tools I have collected, to my amusement, over the years. But the living are far more fragile than the rusting, and the daily sacrifice is a ritual that grows in cruelty and needlessness as the traffic multiplies. Sometimes the dead tell tales: the numbers of flat hedgehogs I ride past give me an inverse measure of the abundance of their mortal enemies, the local badgers. One broken casualty I found was the corpse of the first polecat identified in that part of the county since the species began to return to its ancient haunts. Even worse are those not yet dead, like the dying swallow I found one day, smashed into the gutter by a car windscreen. Its beauty and wide-mouthed agony, and the empty sky where it had been flying, will never cease to haunt me. One swallow does not make a summer; but the absence of one darkens all of the sky, and surely grieves Him who notices even when one sparrow falls. Yet, most of the crushed creatures and broken birds are missed only in this world by their widowed and orphaned dependants.

Cyclists also notice flowers. I watch every year for the little colony of bulbous buttercups on one verge to flower, probably the descendants of ones that grew in an ancient flower meadow on that spot. Many people think all yellows are dandelions or buttercups, but I look closely, for goat’s beard, corn sowthistle and greater celandine have also caught my eye. Other colours are abundant too, but I was delighted one day to find myself riding past the ephemeral sky-blue flowers of a chicory, that strange will-o-the-wisp plant that comes and goes again just as mysteriously. It was the first chicory in that part of the county for years.

When we bought our house, I planned its location for green commuting, and so the countryside is mine now. But ‘twas not always thus, as I well know. At university, I cycled for three years through the inner city, passing through Moss Side in deepest Manchester night and morning. Not only carbon dioxide filled my lungs there; particulate matter from diesel exhausts was small beer compared with the stench of the old rubber factory and the cloud of vapour over the lager brewery. Green is not a natural colour in such places, where life seems frustrated in every direction. Even the seven traffic lights that I passed through on each trip were only all green twice in three years!

Yet curiously, that made the wildlife of the city more, not less precious. Disdained by rural people, a magpie on a roof there became a thing of wonder, as evocative in its striking plumage as an eagle would be in the wild. I identified many wild flowers for the first time in the inner city, when I began to notice them. My first zig-zag clover was growing on a bare patch at the roadside in Moss Side, where it seemed as exotic and precious as an orchid to me. To this day, I cannot pass a weedy waste lot even in the deepest city without walking up to see what is struggling into flower there. And struggling is the word, for the life of such places is not a tame flora. The “weeds” of such places, as most people call them, are anything but weedy. As with human beings, they are endowed by their Creator with a beauty that lies in their origin and longing for life, rather than in their behaviour. They are fiercely greedy, determined flowers that try to strangle all their competitors in the attempt to produce an outburst of fertility and seed before they do. And such plants may not be common ones, either. Often they are rich in colour, and often they are rich in history, being aliens from faraway lands that have hitch-hiked here on polluting human transport from all over the world. Yet few understand their stories, or even see them as they drive by.

Trains and buses are good for wildlife. I have never myself seen much from a bus, but my train often passes buzzards, and sometimes foxes on clear winter morns. Every spring I watch out for the stock doves that nest under or near the arch of the railway viaduct (at Holmes Chapel), flying out as each train passes. In the river below the viaduct I once saw a pair of fine goosander swimming, and from the viaduct I can see right down into the crow nest in the tree beside the arches. Once, I saw a barn owl from the train. When I am really stressed out in summer, I count rabbits from the evening train – my record is 105 in ten miles! One day I will fall asleep doing it and miss my station! And the stations can be good, too. Last summer I was getting on the train almost in sight of a long-tailed tit nest, and disembarking within earshot of a singing whitethroat.

Wild creatures travel, too, but not along our roads. Sometimes their flyways cross our roads. At one hill-top I cycle over, at different times I have seen a flashing peregrine, a crescent-winged hobby – the only hawk that can catch both a swift and a dragonfly - and even (one shining dusk) a woodcock flying across in front of my bicycle. I took one bird that flew across the road (Hind Heath Road) for a starling - until as it passed in front of me it revealed the glorious sky-blue plumage of a kingfisher. In the field nearby, there is a solitary skylark every summer, and once there was a little owl on a pole.

When summer is over, many green commuters give up. But they miss some of the best of the year. Autumn brings bounties - my children never went short of conkers, for the first and brightest of the season’s horse chestnut fruit always roll past my very wheels. So do acorns, in search of which the jays leave the deep woods and fly openly to their favourite oaks in October, although they never reveal themselves to me in any other month. In good acorn years, mighty flocks of woodpigeons rise from copses and woods like smoke on frosty mornings, flying over me high and suspicious.

And perhaps the most satisfying sights are the mid-winter ones, when the drivers are sitting in their fuggy cars breathing in the carcinogenic fumes from the exhaust of the vehicle in front. Despite global warming, winter in the twenty-first century still has its challenging side for cyclists, including many rainy and stormy as well as starry nights, and bitter, stunning mornings of ice-brittle beauty - although these are fewer than they were. Even the excellent waterproofs, the warmly windproof fluorescent jackets and a scarf over the mouth do not keep out all the winter’s discomfort. Yet they all make life much easier than it used to be. Modern bike materials and high-pressure tyres (no hand pumps, if you want to stop every thorn!) and a good modern dynamo mean that cycling is now both green and possible at almost all times.

Winter is the season of wide-open skies, when the views are at their seasonally most impressive. Across them, like drifting black stars, pass flights of Scandinavian redwing and fieldfare, winging high from beech-top to ash-top. Also more easily seen are the great, white-winged swans that sometimes whistle over toward the one of the old sand-quarries or distant meres. Squadrons of Canada geese often throb overhead, like avian Lancaster bombers.

Rarer and higher-flying are the flights of real Arctic wild geese, pink-footed geese from Greenland or Iceland, whose faint calls drift down to me occasionally on midwinter days when the incessant unhappy mumble of cars on the road fades enough to let them ring down to me. They have the clarity of far-away bells on a frozen morning, coming evocatively down on the sharp wind that makes my skin tingle. Who would willingly shut themselves away in a car from all this?

Finally, there comes that season which is the end and begining of all seasons. Soon spring arrives; and with it, an Easter flavour of the fragility of life and of the renewal it ought to have and which has been gifted at unimaginable cost to those that will accept it. But without repentance there can be no new life; and our springs are more precious and less guaranteed than ever, as our world grows older. Yet, the countryside has a lasting character to it that, with care, will long outlive all of our busy lives.

At one point I cycle past a great tree, a towering Wellingtonia whose ancient bark is as soft as sponge and full of hollows in which treecreepers and other tiny birds shelter. It will fall one day, but its replacement is already there, a sapling that was a tiny thing fenced against the rabbits on the first day I noticed it new-planted. Now, as I ride past, I watch the youngster grow larger all the time. Already it has sprung up to two thirds the height of its ancient relative. I do not believe that planting trees is always the best thing to do; yet if I was told that the world was ending tomorrow, I would go out defiantly and plant a tree today. For tomorrow is no-one’s property, and no prediction of doom or disaster for Creation is greater than the living hope that our heavenly Father, through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, plants in all who desire Him. All we have to do is never to let that hope, the most precious of all living things, die.