Pristine? Virgin? – is it time to give these concepts a break?

Mine rake on the Mendip Hills

Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.

But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.

Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.

Rodway Hill

So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.

So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.

When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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