Dr Julie Carter



“What’s your favourite time of year?” Mine is autumn, right now. Until the days are dark and short and the first snow sprinkles the fell tops, then winter will be my favourite. After that, when snowdrops give way to daffodils,when all the buds are bursting and the birdsong goes mad, when spring will become my favourite. And when the days are long and the fells are purple and perfumed in heather; summer is my favourite then. But the question of a favourite season is something I have been asked many times and I wonder why. It seems like a daft question. Is it that we have an in-built need to order and rank everything? Which thing is best, second best and worst? Who is fastest, most successful, has the biggest bank balance...? 

Daft questions are not limited to daft people; even my professors at university often seem to be asking them. Is performance poetry better than highbrow literature? Should writing be for one's self or for an audience? Is work which is highly complex and obscure more valuable than writing which is accessible? God forbid that the literati should concern themselves with that which can be plainly understood. “We must judge” says the professor, “it’s what we are paid to do”. At which point I hang my head, defeated again by the ethic of best and worst.

Right now let us indulge ourselves in autumn. The damp mustiness, the fungi, the woods, the colours, the leaves – still mostly on as I’m writing this, and many of them still green. I thought this was wonderful, this unseasonal prolongation of green, until someone pointed out to me that the trees will be getting hardly any rest these days. No sooner are they bald than they will have to think about sprouting. Even trees are lacking down-time. I’ve owned a mobile phone for nearly two years now. During lockdowns it started to have an unhealthy hold over me. Presently I am reverting to archaic behaviour and I only switch it on now and again. This annoys some people. Some people say they don’t like winter, when the trees are bare.

I’m finding it hard, to know how to live just now. How in the face of everything falling apart to be constructive and hopeful and responsible and grown-up, and even in certain fleeting moments to be happy? How to live? Isn’t this the only real question? For instruction in this I went to the woods up the valley today, into the temperate rainforest of Borrowdale.

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I went to learn about the lichens from a real-life professional lichenologist. I learnt how on a single pollarded ash tree there could be dozens of different microenvironments, each with its own range of strange and tiny creatures adapted to a particular set of conditions. Dog lichens, elf’s ears, satin lichen, kidney lichens, barnacle lichens, lungworts, srobs, shingle lichen, dimple and felt lichens, jelly-skins, grey crottle, wart lichen, sea-storm, desperate Dan, heather rags, horsehairs, beards, cudbears, shaggy straps and bleeding hearts. Common and rare things, beautiful and ugly things. And the diminutive pollards, three or four hundred years old, under attack from die-back. Two of them lying dead on the floor. We examined transplants of lichen the tutor had made over a year ago. In an effort to save some rare species which were on fallen trees she had experimented with different methods of transferring some lichens to living trees. Some of the transplants had taken. We also learnt how to tell a moss from a liverwort and something of the many creatures only truly apprecaited through a magnifying lens. We talked about the woodland, how its days are numbered because the sheep nibble out all the saplings. We tried to understand where we are and how we have got here and what we should do next. The tutor described how the pollution from one small car park near Surprise View had probably been responsible for the disappearance of a lichen found hardly anywhere else in England. And driving home I remarked on the dissonance that constantly eats me up. The way I seem to live a double life. I drive a car. I participate in practical destructions and then I grieve over what I have helped to destroy.

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The Lichens have defined borders between each other. They defend their piece of habitat but they don’t invade the places they are not suited to. They seem not to seek the best thing but the most suitable thing. While driving back down the valley from the woods a great storm has begun. The leaves will soon be off. Almost before they have a chance to turn. I don’t know how to live but I can’t avoid the discomfort of self-interrogation. I don’t even know if it is, or is not, a daft question. What I know is that winters are necessary and what I am finding out about is the satisfaction that can come, from living in a microenvironment. Would it be so bad never to leave this valley? Would it be a better or a worse life?

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