Thursday, 10 July 2014

Book Review: God's Acre by Francesca Greenoak

Front cover of God's Acre
by Francesca Greenok
Illustrated by Clare Roberts.
Prior to the weekend just gone, I had no idea a book like this existed. It was given to us as a wedding gift by one of our churchyard friends. Francesca's beautiful flowing prose is only matched by the detailed, yet minimal drawings and watercolours provided by Clare Roberts.

The author visited over two hundred churches while collecting material for this book and the detail provided in the text makes this apparent - as each page is full of gems. It's lovely to see that while a lot of churchyard match our own in terms of species, there are differences in species and usage in the churchyards of England and Wales.

The book is laid out in five chapters, the first being History and Heritage. Throughout the book Francesca makes obvious, yet thought provoking points about how our churchyard are used and about the connection of churchyard with wildlife. She makes is clear that it is desirable for wildlife and civilisation to exist in harmony. The research that the author has done for this book is clear throughout, especially in the choices of quotes used, including this one from Pope Gregory the Great that 'people would 'continue to frequent the same sacred places' even if the altar there was dedicated to a new god'. It was also interesting to find that at one point in history it was illegal to donate land to the Church, although it was again legal by the time of George III. We manage our churchyard with grass of primary importance, so it's humbling to know that managing churchyards as a meadow is a traditional practice. As such we can expect to see at least some of the plants and animals that were present in the historic churchyards.

Which brings us on to chapter 2 of Churchyard familiars. I'm a fan of ivy, so was pleased to see that the author chose to speak of ivy as a plant that is good for wildlife throughout the year. Another familiar in churchyards, including ours, is that no matter how it is managed for wildlife there always seems to be a stretch of grass that is always well trimmed on either side of the lych-gate all the way to the porch.

The third chapter talks of the churchyard being a place of sanctuary and survival. I hadn't realised that throughout history people have always been able to find sanctuary within the churchyard, but these days, perhaps more importantly, it is other kingdoms of life that required the safety of a churchyard to survive. This includes the tens, sometimes hundreds, of species of lichen that survive within the grounds of a churchyard, when they cannot survive anywhere else. This is often because churchyards are out of the way and face fewer problems with pollution, but also because the churchyard tends to stay the same for decades or hundreds of years, allowing wildlife to make a home without being disturbed.

For many this is a cause of celebration and ceremony, which is the topic of the fourth chapter. Something that the author points out is so obvious that I hadn't thought about it before and now wonder why it had never come to mind, is that some plant species are in the churchyard because they were used inside the church. Some species such as lady's mantle managed to survive or set seed when they were discard from floral decoration within the church. Other species, such as holly and ivy were grown because they were used at certain ceremonies through the Church year. A wonderful tradition, that I'd never seen, but could picture well because of Francesca's wonderful description is the rush-baring procession whereby the floor covering of rushes would be changed in late summer. This takes place as a community event, which is the discussion of the final chapter of the book.

In the community and conservation chapter, the author points out that most people are totally unaware of the species within the churchyard, but when told are not only interested, but concerned. This is especially the case with species considered as rarities, but I hope even common species would be of concern as the churchyard is often 'a shaded fountain in a parched desert' as Francesca quotes W. H. Hudson at the close of the book.

An appendix of plants with religious names and associates follows two churchyard surveys.

This book was a real pleasure to read and provides so much information within such few pages - but doesn't overwhelm. Instead the words and illustrations only serve to inspire the reader to a deeper appreciation of the churchyard as a place not only for wildlife, but for us to enjoy wildlife.

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