Random Thoughts

The Lakes District. Summer 2014.

There’s joy in the mountains;

There’s life in the fountains;

Small clouds are sailing,

Blue sky prevailing;

The rain is over and gone!

Phenology is at the very heart of this Wordsworth poem about seasonal change, written in the early 1800’s. Oxford’s online dictionary suggests phenology wasn’t even a word until the late 1800’s. Yet Wordsworth is a naturalist constantly making phenological observations during his poetic career. “Scientist” was not yet an accepted term when Wordsworth was a young man, and the professional scientist was nearly non-existent. Science was conducted, for the most part, by well educated people of means with time to make and document their observations of nature.


Over the past year we (Heidi Ballard and Mark Schwartz) have been immersed in phenology as we partnered with an amazing group of UC Davis graduate students to strategize, evaluate, plan, document and implement a new project called the California Phenology Project at Stebbins. It also happens that Heidi, Mark and Sharon Strauss went hiking in Wordsworth’s Lake District this August. In fact, this blogpost is being written from Keswick on a rest day from a 70 mile hike on the Cumbria Way.

Given that we are spending time in the landscape of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), it seems fitting to write about phenological observations, citizen science, and science, when they were all simply citizens collecting natural history observations.

Two days ago we were staying at a B&B just outside of Dungeon Ghyll (fantastic place names). We chanced upon a couple that had just finished their PhD’s, Tom and Jessica. Both are Wordsworth scholars. Tom’s dissertation was inspired by Richard Holmes’ fascinating book “Age of Wonder.” He studied the science that inspired Wordsworth, and Wordsworth’s treatment of that science.

“Age of Wonder” recounts British science from the late 1700’s through the mid 19th century, when natural philosophers were to be first called “scientists” and the idea of a professional scientist emerged. This was the age of William Herschel and telescopes big enough to discover Uranus, Humphry Davy and the experimentation with gases as ‘medicine’, and of course Joseph Banks’ botanical collections that helped us to understand our natural world.

Educated people were expected to keep up with this explosion of knowledge. Not only were Wordsworth and Coleridge great observers of nature, they were also friends to many of these leaders of emerging scientific understanding. Davy, for example discovered the euphoric properties of nitrous oxide and, reported in “Age of Wonder,” had numerous nitrous oxide parties with Wordsworth and Coleridge in attendance.

LansgtrathswimmingholeTom, our new Wordsworth scholar friend, is fascinated by how these romantic poets integrated emerging scientific understanding into their work. Taking this to heart, we revisited these poems within the landscape that they were written to be awestruck by the familiarity with which these poems read. The ‘working landscape’ of the Lake District is little changed since Wordsworth’s time, and it was as though we could see his footprints in the mud as we traipsed by tarn and fell, gill and crag. Actually it seemed a bit unfair; musn’t it be easier to write memorable poetry when living in a land of colourful landscape descriptors?


This landscape remains little changed in part because Beatrix Potter purchased huge tracts of land in the early 1900’s and donated it to the National Trust, stipulating that the Lake District National Park be managed as a working landscape with Herdwick sheep grazing it. This is how this landscape has been managed since the Norsemen introduced this hardy breed several thousand years ago.

On our very next day we encountered Hazel and Joe at the Yew Tree Farm in Rothswaite. Hazel and Joe have been farming here for 30 years and are about to give up. They cite government regulations on grazing as the cause, with it becoming more and more difficult to maintain their traditional way of herding sheep. With few young people to take over, they do not know what will happen to the region as the older generation of sheep farmers age out of the practice. Clearly this change deeply saddens Hazel and Joe. In addition, they claim that government regulations are having a deep and negative consequence on the landscape as under-grazed allotments become impenetrable bracken fern wastelands. These fern thickets are not good for biodiversity, not good for grazing, and not particularly good for the robust hiking tourism in the region.

A quick perusal of ISI Web of Science and we found that the issues seem to revolve around a tension between the heather, grassland and bracken. Restorationists appear to want a more heath-dominated landscape, while sheep farmers prefer grassland, but bracken seems to displace both; especially grassland when grazing is minimal.


Walking from farm to fell and fell to farm across this landscape, one can’t help to think that this ancient grazing landscape is on a razor’s edge. This has been the most favored recreational landscape of England for decades if not centuries. There are hundreds of trekkers out hiking the hills as we write this. The towns are chock full of B&B’s for travelers. The historical parts of town are replete with 200 year old British Inn’s, suggesting that vacationing in the Lakes goes back at least to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Joe and Hazel sell their fell-raised Herdwick lamb only in their own teahouse and direct to restaurants, cutting out the middlemen. This seems to be as close to sustainable tourism as one might get.


Yet, socioeconomic change is only one set of problems facing the Lake District and these historic ways of life and land management. Climate change is hitting the northern latitudes earliest and hardest. Whatever the delicate balance between grassland, forest and heath, this is changing. Climate change, growing bracken infestations, erosion from overuse by hikers. Just like in the US, there is a tension between government regulation, agricultural landowners and recreational tourists. But the manifestation of these tensions are completely different in a land where public pathways traverse all manner of private lands.

But where are the natural historians collecting the observations needed to understand and respond to these changes? The UK has a rich history of citizen science: the British Trust for Ornithology has been coordinating volunteers for a breeding bird survey for 50 years. Volunteer water quality and biomonitoring has alerted the UK Environment Agency to declining waterways. Naturalists who tracking phenological changes in the Lakelands might be out here with us right now. We hope so.

Returning to Stebbins, the next time you go for to walk or collect phenological observations, take a moment to reflect on the old homestead site and the very brief grazing history of that particular canyon. Stebbins was a working landscape for just a brief moment in time (1930s), during the time Beatrix Potter was establishing herself as an award winning Herdwick sheep farmer. Think also about the relatively brief period during which science has been dominated by the professional scientist; about the same length of time since the romantic poetry of Wordsworth. Then think about our mission at Stebbins: to create a mechanism to put powerful scientific observations into the hands of citizens out walking the hills for recreation. Finally, consider writing a romantic poem that captures how you feel on your day at Stebbins. Science, art, nature and literature are not so far apart as we make them out to be. We all need to appreciate the role of the Wordsworths and Potters; of literature, science, conservation and the joy of the changing seasons.

Mark Schwartz and Heidi Ballard, 3 September 2014


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